'Health-ed' campaign: Marketers of 'vice' foods fight back with science, PR

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Sirloin steaks, chocolate and martinis don't usually make it onto too many nutritionists' lists of healthy foods. But marketers of such indulgent foods are out to prove, with scientific backing, that they can be good for you.

National Cattlemen's Beef Association, for one, plans to launch a print effort later this year that spits squarely in the eye of beef naysayers. Likewise, marketers of other so-called vices, including alcohol and chocolate, are driving marketing efforts-many of them with roundabout public relations efforts incorporating doctors and research-to re-educate consumers about their views.

right time

"The Senate Select Committee in 1977 came out with dietary guidelines to eat less red meat and more fish and poultry, and [the beef industry] has been under a blanket of misinformation ever since," said Mark Thomas, VP-consumer marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. But, he said, the timing is right for a significant effort to "explode the nutrition misinformation" and offer up facts showing that a 3 oz. serving of lean beef has a lot going for it according to scientific data from the USDA, Mr. Thomas said.

Of course, Mr. Thomas acknowledged, the print campaign from Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett Worldwide, Chicago, will "have to be strategically smart because the obesity issue is significant." But, he asserts, beef is not the problem, especially promoted in moderation as part of a balanced diet and exercise regimen. "Those organizations whose agenda is to get beef off the plate altogether are driven not by nutrition but by animal rights," Mr. Thomas said.

Members of the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., among them heavy hitters such as Brown-Forman Corp. and Allied Domecq, also have their opponents. But a recent study conducted by Harvard University and published in the New England Journal of Medicine defies such opposition, offering that light to moderate consumption of alcohol (whether beer, wine or the much-vilified liquor) could actually reduce the risk of coronary heart disease among men by roughly 30%.

Although the Spirits Council prohibits its members from marketing on the basis of health claims, according to the Council's spokesman, Frank Coleman, "consumers clearly have a right to know" about the research, he said. To ensure that they do, the Council issued a press release detailing that those with the lowest risk for heart disease were men who consumed alcohol three or more days per week, and has developed a "Tool Kit" for doctors in partnership with the American Dietetic Association.

"Surveys show people respond favorably to information they receive from their doctor," Mr. Coleman said.

good and good for you

As for chocolate, the industry is proceeding slowly on marketing efforts despite more than 50 scientific studies that link the flavanols in chocolate to good cardiovascular health and suggests they can cure coughs.

"We know we're in a category where you could be laughed at if the science isn't credible," said Marlene Machut, external affairs director at Mars. However, having taken the lead in the flavanols research for the past decade, with a variety of studies using its Dove and M&M's brands in particular, Mars has tried to get the word out via more than $1 million spent on its nutrition communication efforts. The company trademarked its cocoa-processing strategy (cocoapro) that helps retain the supposedly health-boosting flavanols, placed a cocoapro logo on its chocolate products, and developed Web sites (one consumer-oriented, one for health professionals) that tout the research.

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