Opinion: Leader - Do food firms want a healthy image?

Healthy living, the Government has acknowledged in this week's long-awaited White Paper, 'Choosing Health', has an image problem. While the fast-food industry is portrayed as offering 'excitement, escape and instant gratification' - to children in particular - the portrayal of healthy lifestyles can seem 'preachy, boring and too much like hard work'.

Although the smoking ban led this week's coverage of the mega-policy announcement (and measures to tackle binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections were treated comparatively as afterthoughts), it is the obesity issue that engages business most. While the Government has refrained from a pre-watershed ad ban on junk foods on the advice of Ofcom, continuous use of cartoon characters and celebrities by the food industry to lure children will force it to regulate. It has also acknowledged that people trust messages they get from certain brands more than those from the state.

So it has called on marcoms professionals - the people who make less healthy choices the 'sexy' ones - to harness their comms skills to bring about social good, making behaviour that harms health unattractive and that which improves health attractive.

The Government also calls on food firms to be 'socially responsible corporate citizens'. This leaves a clear choice. They either build desire purely on the taste of their product (or other sales proposition) or they seek to build their reputations around healthy living. But they will have to change their own behaviour - the make-up of their products - and succeed in being seen as having done so before trying to change consumer behaviour.

Dabbling in health-related CSR initiatives as a way of offsetting the health deficit offered by products high in fat, salt and sugar will not wash with a media quick to attack double standards, as witnessed by Cadbury with its much-maligned Get Active scheme.

Food companies should either buy into the public health agenda wholeheartedly or not at all.

prweek@haynet.com.

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