As controversy grows about obesity and the marketing of junk food to kids, food companies and their advertising and PR teams are waiting to discover whether Ofcom will tighten up the Advertising Code, or even recommend a ban on food advertising to children.
The decision will be announced later this month. While a ban is thought to be extremely unlikely, the Government, food manufacturers and even lobbying bodies seem to be approaching a consensus that all parties need to work together on a much wider, and more long-term, educational campaign.
Observers expect there will be a follow-up public consultation, taking around three months, before any changes to the code come into effect.
Around £70m a year is spent on advertising to children, and some of the biggest players in the market spend a significant chunk of their budget on this audience. More than half of Haribo's ads are run during children's TV programming, as are 44 per cent of Kellogg's ads, and about a third of all advertising for McDonald's and Nestle.
Opening up debate
Kellogg's European director of corporate communications Chris Wermann expects the Ofcom report to open up the debate on how far the self-regulatory codes should go in terms of advertising food.
'It's about tightening the code so it is more specific on what advertising to certain age groups should and shouldn't include,' he says. 'While I don't believe the market for the products has changed, the environment has.'
So will a tighter advertising code lead to more opportunities for PR?
The view from the PR industry is a clear yes - but not necessarily in terms of consumer product PR as a simplistic alternative to advertising.
APCO head of corporate communications Claire Cater believes PR has the opportunity to enhance the reputability of the food companies and build consumer trust.
'The Ofcom report itself may well lead to a new wave of criticism and negative examples, and companies need to build their reputation to be taken seriously,' she says. 'No matter what some companies do, even good campaigns can be received cynically.'
Cater also believes advertising budgets will fall after Ofcom makes its report. The shifting marketing environment will probably not encourage a straightforward transfer of advertising budgets into product PR, but instead there will be a crucial role for PR in its broadest sense.
'PR spend is likely to increase, as companies find they need to bring in experts who understand the issues and policy,' she says. 'The winners are likely to be those with public affairs and corporate capability, as well as consumer PR expertise.'
For some food companies, however, this is already the case.
At Weber Shandwick, director Matt Neale has been working on a stakeholder outreach programme for Unilever on its Wall's ice cream brand. 'We've been sitting down with all sorts of bodies, including NGOs, to explain Unilever's policy for Wall's, what it is doing in terms of labelling, and education about how ice cream can fit into a balanced diet,' he says.
'It's nigh-on impossible to do that with advertising. PR has been chosen to spearhead the campaign this year, and we are working closely with Unilever's ad agency, McCann-Erickson.'
Members of WS's consumer, public affairs, issues and corporate teams all work together on the account. 'We can't go to the consumer without first explaining to the different stakeholders what we are doing,' adds Neale. 'If we did just go straight to the consumer, the press would call and ask for a quote from lobbying groups anyway. We are therefore making sure senior executives spend time building that dialogue. Ten years ago you could just put out an ad and track awareness and that would be it.
Now it's a more complicated debate, with the media and a lot more stakeholders involved. PR for food companies isn't just about media coverage anymore.'
PRCA chairman and Kaizo CEO Crispin Manners agrees that the biggest challenge is the education process that changes underlying consumer behaviour. 'That means making sure messages are relevant, understandable and aspirational, and is likely to mean changing the behaviour of parents as much as kids,' he says. 'Advertising is brilliant at communicating a very simple message to large numbers of people, but the moment the messages become more complicated, PR needs to become part of the marketing solution.'
No instant response
But food companies do need to be patient with PR. 'They are used to getting an instant response from advertising, and it takes more time to shift public opinion,' Cater points out. 'Some marketing directors may find that a struggle.'
Food companies such as Walkers and McDonald's have been criticised in the past for the use of celebrities in their advertising, as celebrity endorsement is seen as an important factor in attracting children to brands.
But rather than ending their relationships with star names altogether, manufacturers could divert the powerful pull of celebrity to help communicate broader health messages within a PR campaign. 'Celebrities always have to look good as part of their jobs, and it might be a question of just redirecting resources,' observes Cater.
In another twist to the status quo, the obesity debate is leading to an even more important role for PR at the heart of food companies. WS, for instance, has a seat at the table when new products are being developed for Wall's.
'It's not often that PR has a voice to shape what the product will be like,' says Neale. 'This clearly demonstrates that PROs are being listened to very seriously. Companies understand that, at the moment, PR is a close link to the consumer.'
Whatever the Ofcom report reveals, there will always be a place for good food advertising. But as the debate continues over what and how we and our children eat, and the influence of PR experts in the food sector grows, this may turn out to be the first industry where PR really can march ahead of advertising.
BRAND: Kraft, Dairylea Lunchables, Director of corporate affairs: Joanna Scott
RECENT ADVERTISING: Focus on new Pitta Pouches. Advertising is targeted at 'mums', positioning all products in the Lunchables range as an occasional treat for kids to be eaten alongside fresh fruit, vegetables and juices. All ads feature children being active.
RECENT PR STRATEGIES: No specific product PR around the Dairylea Lunchables brand, although as changes to the product and packaging are made these will be communicated through PR activity.
FUTURE PR STRATEGIES: No plans for change following the Ofcom report.
BRAND: Kellogg's, Frosties, Kellogg's UK PR manager: Sam Fulton RECENT ADVERTISING: The integrated Frosties Earn Your Stripes campaign covers TV advertising, promotions and PR. The most recent advertising features Brazilian children doing football tricks. RECENT PR STRATEGIES: The campaign is centred on encouraging kids to improve their football skills. Earn Your Stripes is a long-term campaign that can be adapted to other sports and activities across the Frosties brand.
FUTURE PR STRATEGIES: No change planned, as long as advertising activity continues to fall well within the Advertising Code.
BRAND: Haribo, Marketing manager: Christian Freund
RECENT ADVERTISING: Latest ads will run across children's satellite channels and GMTV until the end of August 2004. Focus on the Haribo strapline: 'Kids and grown ups love it so, the happy world of Haribo'. All ads include parents.
RECENT PR STRATEGIES: PR activity works under the umbrella theme of 'Haribo Makes Dreams Come True'. Recent activity included inviting kids to 'Run the Factory' for a day, join a sweet-tasting session and design their own dream sweet, which was produced by Haribo.
FUTURE PR STRATEGIES: Strategy is expected to stay the same following the Ofcom report.