Big Food's status as the new Big Tobacco was underlined this week by a study issued by the Institute of Medicine that paints marketing as the evildoer in the childhood obesity debate, exposes the food industry to costly lawsuits like those that slammed the tobacco business, and will force a reassessment of marketing spending, strategy and messaging. The IOM report looks certain to become a rallying cry for the many critics who have linked marketing to kids to the rising incidence of childhood obesity, and it seems to undo-or at least ignore-much of the work that has been done by food marketers to stave off such criticism.
There is little weight given to the health-and-wellness initiatives Big Food has already undertaken. Instead the report resolutely calls for the industry to "shift the emphasis away from high-calorie and low-nutrition foods and beverages...," which it concludes are indeed "associated" with the increase of obesity, or face legislation mandating the shift within two years.
Faced with such a direct order from the IOM, an agency of the National Academy of Sciences, the food industry, which critics like Sen. Harkin, D.-Iowa, claim spends as much as $11 billion a year marketing to kids, will likely look to shift some money out of traditional media and find other ways-such as public relations-to get across their product messages. The traditional advertising they continue to do, meanwhile, will have to focus on more healthful products. But there's a problem with that shift: Many healthful lines-even when aggressively marketed-fail to recoup the revenue or profits of the less healthy alternatives.
"Marketers are spending millions of dollars to deliver healthier products, the problem is parents aren't buying them," said Rachel Geller, chief strategic officer for kids' marketing agency Geppetto Group. "If the government is shutting down its own programs [like Verb] and consumers don't care, how can marketers-who have a responsibility to shareholders-be expected to carry the burden?"
Ms. Geller predicted that the study will in fact make marketing to kids more difficult in many ways. Maria Bailey, CEO of BSM Media and author of "Marketing to Moms," agreed, taking it one step further. "This will challenge marketers to be more innovative with their spending and look for new entry into the household instead of kids."
But any food marketing to kids will have to be carefully scrutinized, as Big Food will now also be exposed to potential lawsuits. One lawyer involved in tobacco cases said that the IOM study will make the food companies easier to attack. "It certainly opens the marketer up," said Richard A. Daynard, an associate dean at Northeastern University School of Law, who has been involved in tobacco litigation and is also readying a case on soft-drink sales in schools. "At this point they are legally responsible for knowing the consequences of marketing high calorie density to kids."
Mr. Daynard said the IOM report "provides support" for lawsuits though he also said any suits would more likely be state consumer-protection suits to recover costs, rather than the tort cases first filed in the tobacco litigation. In consumer-protection cases plaintiffs could claim advertising messages were unfair or deceptive, with the outcome likely to depend on whether marketers had information suggesting the messages would lead to kids overeating.
While most of the themes raised in the study have been raised before, including the vilification of licensed characters used to sell unhealthful foods to kids, "The study serves as a reminder of what happens behind closed doors at global conglomerates as to how they go after clients, especially young ones, just like studies years ago did for the cigarette industry," said Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates Public Relations. "That's damaging," he said.
The defensive response by food-industry insiders to the report's findings also bears similarities to the Big Tobacco issues, although some companies with a lot at stake-among them Kraft Foods and PepsiCo-seem to believe compliance rather than resistance will help them steer clear of the fate of that industry.
Kraft's exec VP-Global Corporate Affairs Mark Berlind, former VP-associate general counsel at Altria, said that the IOM findings are "in many ways consistent with what we've done in marketing and in transforming our portfolio toward better-for-you options." That is a nod to Kraft's decision to pull advertising for all products aimed at kids under 12, other than its better-for-you foods, and to grow its more-healthful options that it dubs Sensible Solutions.
PepsiCo spokeswoman Lynn Markley likewise offered that the company is "doing a lot of things the study is talking about" including growing its lineup of "Smart Spot" offerings and developing a "Smart Lifestyle" campaign that includes national advertising and the development of 12 playgrounds across the country, among other efforts.