Exclusive - Food fight: Kraft beats back critics

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In an effort to be perceived as problem solver rather than perpetrator in the childhood-obesity debate, Kraft Foods is reviewing its marketing efforts, warning agencies and staff alike to be sensitive to the growing crisis.

Already, the marketer has pulled a TV spot for its Oreo cookies that it felt portrayed a too-sedentary situation, which is not in line with a newly emphasized set of advertising guidelines. Kraft is also busy allocating millions of dollars in funding for public-education efforts and has filled the pipeline with new products and healthier versions of existing products, all in an effort to shield itself from public scrutiny.

"Society can respond [to the obesity issue] in a simplistic, counter-productive, punitive way if it wishes, and if it does that, we do have a lot at stake," said Michael Mudd, senior VP-corporate affairs. Per a mandate straight from Kraft Foods North America President-CEO Betsy Holden, Mr. Mudd has helped to develop Kraft's increased consumer-education efforts and shape a marketing policy in which ads reflect the company's heightened sensitivity to America's dangerously expanded waistlines. While Mr. Mudd said that "the vast majority of our ads were fine and are fine" due to longtime policies regarding how serving sizes and active lifestyles be reflected in ads, Kraft has instructed brand groups and its agency partners to be even more vigilant that copy sends the "right" message. (See Fast Facts, at right.)

"Given the changing public-health picture, we have increased our efforts to try to be part of the solution," Mr. Mudd said. "Sure, we want to grow as a company, but unhealthy consumption is in no one's long-term interest."

responsibility

Kraft is definitely not alone in its efforts. According to Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, most major food companies are working to make marketing teams aware of the new sensitivities and take responsibility for their role in the public crisis.

"Our concern is that the national discussion of obesity could devolve into lawsuits and finger-pointing and blaming that don't solve the problem," Mr. Grabowski said. To prevent that, the industry is ramping up information efforts for parents on healthy exercise and eating habits.

Kraft, he said, is leading the charge. No surprise there, one executive close to the company said, when "if any food company in the world should know better, it's the one owned by Philip Morris." The tobacco company has, of course, suffered mightily from litigation against it and other tobacco marketers for allegedly deceitful advertising.

The recent Double Stuff Oreo ad that Kraft pulled from the airwaves, from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide, New York, pictured a group of teens sitting around lethargically, hardly a message Kraft wants to send when its assertion is that physical activity is as important as food consumption in solving the obesity problem.

public programs

Kraft has also stepped up funding of public programs. Among them are the International Food Information Council Foundation's Activate, a healthy-lifestyles program that centers around kids' Web site kidnetics.com, and the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition, a food-industry organization launched last week to ensure that public policy addresses the obesity issue. Kraft will spend more than $1 million on a pilot program in four cities later this year, Salsa Sabor Y Salud (roughly translated, Movement, Taste and Health), that offers Hispanic families 12-week courses to improve eating and fitness behavior.

The third element in its three-pronged approach is product development. Where it's appropriate and possible, Mr. Mudd said, Kraft will reduce calories per serving in existing products and in new products, and look for ways to reduce fat content and add vitamins and minerals, a trend already seen in efforts from marketers including PepsiCo's Frito-Lay (AA, Sept. 2, 2002). Kraft has started to move in that direction, with the recent introduction of such products as Fun Fuel, a more nutritious version of its much-vilified Lunchables, and 2% Kraft Singles with Calcium. Those are just the beginning of what Mr. Mudd said are likely to be "widespread incremental improvements."

Fast Facts

Kraft sent guidelines to internal brand groups and agencies, including roster shops Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide and J. Walter Thompson Co., both owned by WPP Group, and Interpublic Group of Cos.' FCB Worldwide. The guidelines suggest ads:

* Portray accurate serving sizes to avoid suggesting over-consumption

* Show products in role of nutritious snack/meal, for example, show Mini Oreos with milk

* Encourage active lifestyles

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