Imagine you are cheering on your child taking part in a schools' football league game. Then you notice a couple of banners from the event's sponsors: a manufacturer of popular chocolate bars. Do you think 'It's great that company is being responsible and encouraging a healthy lifestyle as well as the occasional chocolate treat,' or 'What a cynical marketing exercise targeting a vulnerable audience'?
The media has largely taken the latter stance. There have been calls for a ban on food advertising to children, and leading manufacturers have frequently found themselves on the back foot in recent months, defending themselves against accusations of exploitation and creating a generation of overweight children.
The Government, however, is taking a more measured approach, and in her speech to the Health Select Committee on 29 March, culture and sport secretary Tessa Jowell indicated that there is no likelihood of a blanket advertising ban. She has stated that the rise in obesity levels needs to be combated by private and public sector organisations working together on areas as diverse as education, labelling and encouraging healthier and more active lifestyles, rather than by punishing the food industry.
But legislation aside the media, regulatory and consumer environment, in which food and drink companies go about their business, is shifting dramatically and creating real communications challenges and opportunities.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is now very much at the heart of the food industry's communications activity. As Fishburn Hedges head of public affairs Graham McMillan says: 'The food industry needs to get on the front foot, and play a prominent role in the debate rather than sticking its head in the sand or being defensive. CSR has become an integrated part of communications for food companies, and for those that it hasn't, it should be.'
Food and drink companies are already developing CSR policies and initiatives that directly combat obesity. A number of prominent food companies are also involved with long-term CSR initiatives, frequently sponsoring sporting events. British sport received around £40m last year from the fast food, confectionery and soft drinks sector, the third largest contributor.
The obesity spotlight, however, has meant the food industry has to be extra vigilant in the way it handles these activities. So how do food and drink companies strike the right balance between being responsible members of the community, encouraging children to take part in sporting activities, and marketing an essentially unhealthy product?
Consider, for example, the Get Active schools campaign by Cadbury-Schweppes, which involved children collecting rather a lot of tokens on chocolate bars in return for sports equipment. This is frequently cited as an example of how not to do it, but as Food and Drink Federation deputy director-general and communications director Martin Paterson points out: 'It was fantastically successful with schools and the public, but Cadbury was done over by the media on the basis of hysteria from pressure groups.
Companies are cheered by the fact that the public isn't cynical as the media, but getting the balance is a challenge.'
Cereal manufacturer Kellogg's, meanwhile, believes it has got the balance right. It has had an association with the Amateur Swimming Association for ten years, with a programme that includes the nutritional education of children. But all promotion of events is handled by the sporting body, not the sponsor.
'It's important that we are just seen as enabling the events to happen with our funding. We're not taking packets of cornflakes to the events, as we sell cereals, not sports, and we don't look at it as a commercial enterprise,' says European director of corporate communications Chris Wermann.
At CSR specialist agency Geronimo, managing director Karen Harris says she doesn't believe that food manufacturers need to demonstrate more CSR than any other industry sector, but they do need to be extremely careful to make sure they are not misleading consumers, and to look at how they can be responsible within the boundaries of operating a commercial organisation with products that are enjoyed by millions of consumers.
Weber Shandwick, whose clients include Nestle and Coca-Cola, is taking a proactive stance on the obesity debate by putting together a European Diet and Health Practice made up of various internal experts and chaired by Lord Tom McNally. The group recently published a paper on the issue, 'Obesity: Challenges and Implications for Europe', with the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum.
McNally says CSR by food and drink companies has always been a delicate side of public relations, from schools to sports clubs.
'I don't see a lot wrong with that - in fact I see a lot right with companies getting involved, but it does need professional advice to make sure that high ethical standards are employed. No one wants to get rid of life's little luxuries, but good corporate responsibility is the quid pro quo for not having laws banning anything, and has to be seen as a genuine opportunity to do good, not as a damage limitation exercise.'
At the Food and Drink Federation, Paterson believes that far from being pariahs in the debate over obesity, the industry and its communications teams are part of the solution.
'Companies will use the panoply of methods to communicate with the consumer, and we will see growth in messages and education about how those products can be enjoyed in the context of a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
Branded products are trusted, and actually provide a fabulous conduit to the consumer. This trust brings enormous responsibility, but I am confident that we can rise to that.'
There will be numerous opportunities over the next six months alone for the industry to contribute to the debate, with codes, recommendations and papers from quarters as diverse as Ofcom, the Food Standards Agency, the Health Select Committee and the World Health Organisation.
Obesity is not a passing fad for the media: it's a headline-friendly face of a serious, global debate on consumer health that will affect the food industry from product development to marketing. It seems those confectionery banners on the school sports field are here to stay, as long as they champion the activity rather than the product, and spell out the fat content of that little treat.
KEY CSR POLICIES
With its heritage of CSR, Cadbury Schweppes is refining its policy on obesity and priorities for the global group. This is likely to include improving product labelling and ensuring consumers are well educated. It recognises that Get Active's token collection distracted from the exercise aspect of it.
The fast food giant has provided nutritional information to consumers since 1984, with in-store leaflet and website menu planned. It has an extensive grassroots community football programme committed to training 10,000 coaches by 2006, and has just launched Salads Plus range, which includes fresh fruit and mineral water.
Its CSR policy on obesity has been in place for 18 months with a steering committee to manage education. Priorities include full nutritional labelling, product information on its website and a 40-strong team to respond to nutrition queries. It is part of the FoodFitness initiative in schools and is involved with grassroots tennis.
Its CSR policy on obesity has four priorities: providing consumer choice, with low sugar and diet drinks; labelling, plus nutritional details on the website; responsible sales and marketing, with water and fruit juice in its school vending machines; and supporting youth activity with grassroots football.
Its CSR priorities are a quality diet, moderation and exercise; fortification of cereals; and product appeal as essential to nutritional benefits. It established links with the Amateur Swimming Association, based on nutritional education of children, and is involved with school Breakfast Clubs and grassroots football.