Food Marketers Make Smart Tactical Move With Ad Ban

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

Congratulations to food marketers. They've set a new standard for averting a crisis of public and political opinion. For now.

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Campbell Soup Co., General Mills and others have joined the host of companies that have looked past the fact that there is no scientifically substantiated link between food marketing and obesity. They rose above the sad truth that politicians, parents and the media prefer to blame the easy target of advertising instead of tackling the entrenched social, economic and educational problems that have led to the obesity issue. They even glossed over the glaring reality that few of their more-healthful products have been sales success stories because consumers -- somehow resistant to advertising of good-for-you products -- continue to pick taste over health.

What the food marketers know is that facts count for little in a media culture in which cheap stunts and headlines outscore substance and science, political point scoring trumps meaningful, long-term commitment to change, and way more people are willing to play the blame game than are willing to shoulder personal responsibility.

Rather than burying their heads in the sand about any of this, food marketers took action. For that, they should be applauded.

If we seem to be contradicting previous counsel in this space, we are. In a December 2006 editorial we warned food marketers they'd have to take a stand at some point or risk becoming the next tobacco.

But this goodwill gesture is a smart move. They're calling a tactical retreat that they hope will ultimately win them the ability to continue marketing elsewhere. After all, is it really a huge sacrifice for General Mills to give up marketing Trix to those 12 and under if it can still market Cocoa Puffs to that audience? And while it stings to give up children's programming, the marketers will still advertise during "family" programming. In the end, it's a savvy PR move and well worth the risk.

The question remains, of course, will it work?

By trying to head off a full-scale disaster, food marketers have, in effect, admitted their complicity in making kids fat. Yet six months or two years from now, despite millions of dollars of advertising being pulled or redirected, America's kids -- for blindingly obvious reasons having nothing to do with marketing -- will still be getting fat. Consumers, watchdog groups and Congress will still be looking for someone to blame. And it certainly won't be themselves.
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