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The Men who Made our Children Fat

Kim Brebach - Friday, September 28, 2018

The Men who Made our Children Fat

The Men who Made us Fat is a confronting BBC series that charts over 5 decades the links between obesity and food marketing. In this post, I explore the devious ways food companies peddle their products to kids, and question how they're allowed to push products that are seriously harmful.    

The Marketing of Disease

Do fast food marketer have consciences? Are they accountable to any one? Do they need a Code of Conduct?  Here is a quote from Choice that more than hints at the answers. 

‘Hungry Jack’s Shake and Win app generates vouchers for free or discounted food when [kids]shake their phone at any Hungry Jack’s store. With one in four Australian children overweight or obese, you have to question whether this is a responsible practice.’ 

Profits vs Ethics

Late in 2013, Johnson & Johnson was fined $2.2 Billion for marketing anti-psychotic drugs such as Risperdal for unapproved uses, such as controlling aggression and anxiety in elderly dementia patients, and treating behavioural disturbances in children and those with disabilities.

Business Week pointed out that the fine wasn’t too painful for J&J and its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals, since Risperdal had put $24.2 billion into their coffers between 2003 to 2010. From a business perspective, it was a winning deal. From an ethics perspective, it was business as usual in the world of Big Pharma.

Experts vs Ethics

No doubt tobacco companies wrestled with similar ethical issues when they peddled their cigarettes, and maybe the Wall Street bankers selling worthless Collateralised Debt Obligations did too. It’s easy to blame greedy corporations, but what about the ad agencies and marketers who do the dirty work for them? And what about the governments that let them go on doing this?

Corporations decide to sell questionable products, and their marketing teams – like those in the series Madmen - have to figure out how to make people want to buy them. In the 1950s concerns arose that cigarettes might damage people’s health, and ad agencies responded by hiring medical doctors who smoked while they proclaimed the innocence of cigarettes on TV.

It was a highly successful move since people trust doctors far more than they do car salesmen or politicians. The pattern was repeated in the 70s when questions were raised about the nutritional value of fast food; the ad agencies hired dieticians who assured us that fast food contained protein, fat and carbohydrates in the correct proportions. It seems they can always professionals willing to say just about anything for money, it seems.

The Men who seduced our children

‘Banned from children's TV, junk food firms exploit loophole by pushing sugary treats to youngsters directly through Facebook,’ the UK’s Daily Mail reports. The article points out an obvious fact: that young children don’t have the critical faculties to distinguish advertisements from stories. ‘Some brands, including Oreo, Cadbury's and Coca-Cola,’ it says, ‘are also advertising their wares via games available for children as young as four which are free to download online’.

The paper quotes Professor Gerard Hastings from the University of Stirling who says, ‘This is about subterfuge to get into the kids’ lives, to get into the family life and thereby get access to the parent’s pockets.’ Dr Julian Hamilton Shield from Bristol University warned that the health consequences of this subterfuge would eventually bankrupt the country, but the government wasn’t listening.

Australian consumer watchdog Choice says about ‘$56 billion a year is being spent on social and medical costs linked to obesity in Australia. In the face of strong evidence that junk food ads are part of the obesity problem, the food industry has created voluntary codes to restrict the advertising of unhealthy foods directed primarily at children.’ So now they direct the ads at adults, while kids are looking on.

The Men who Bought the World

Dieticians are less willing to help promote fast food these days, so companies have taken a new tack: they’re sponsoring sports advertising to create a positive association in the minds of their target audience. ‘The line between entertainment and advertising is increasingly blurred,’ says Choice, ‘with product tie-ins and placement within TV shows and films common practice for food companies seeking to reach children with their messages.’

If adults have trouble spotting affiliate or native advertising, what chance do our grandkids have? Do food companies feel responsible for the rising tide of obesity among our kids, though? No chance again. Their stance is that responsible parents should ‘educate their kids about eating unhealthy food in moderation as part of a balanced diet and lifestyle.’

Caveat Emptor has long been the refuge of scoundrels selling rancid wares and, as Choice points out, ‘those same companies are undermining parents at every step by spending vast amounts on advertising and marketing unhealthy foods and drinks to influence children’s preferences.’

So much for self-regulation, which is a cop-out from governments intimidated by food company threats of massive job losses (should more regulations be put in place). There’s no sign of self-regulation in our supermarkets either as you can see from the photo below that I took in 2018.

The Men who bought our Schools

These days, Coca Cola’s business is not selling products but making the world a better place. Coca Cola’s declared mission is

  • To refresh the world
  • To inspire moments of optimism and happiness
  • To create value and make a difference.

Your jaw may be dropping and your head may be shaking, but be aware that Coca Cola spends some of its profits on worthwhile causes such as sustainability, education, clean water and women’s empowerment. Much of this happens in the developing world where the company spends vast sums on promoting its range of 600 soda products. Arch competitor Pepsi also touts its ‘unique commitment to sustainable growth by investing in a healthier future for people and our planet.’

Coca Cola and Pepsi have been paying 4 out of 5 struggling public schools in the US handsomely for soda pouring rights and the right to install vending machines. For example, Coca-Cola paid the Rockford, Illinois school district $4 million upfront and $350,000 a year to sell its drinks in schools. Mother Jones says: ‘The annual payments have funded field trips, gym uniforms, SMART Boards and other frills that individual school budgets may not otherwise have afforded.’

The Men who have a Conscience

In 2016, in the face of increasing pressure from parents and health authorities, Coca Cola decided it had better address the obesity epidemic. ‘We are committed to bring people together to help fight obesity,’ said Coca Cola’s Stuart Kronauge. ‘This is about the health and happiness of everyone who buys our products and wants great-tasting beverages, choice and information. The Coca-Cola Company has an important role in this fight. Together, with willing partners, we will succeed.’

It’s hard to keep a straight face, isn’t it? Coke followed its Coming Together campaign with a second one called Be OK. Coca-Cola promised not to advertise to children under 12 anywhere in the world, and to offer low or no calorie beverage options in every market (which they didn’t before). The company also promised transparent nutrition information with calorie counts on all packages, and support of physical activity programs in all 200 countries where Coca-Cola is sold.

How about that? The campaign took a leaf out of Madman Don Draper’s book of principles: ‘If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.’ Coca Cola’s new campaigns are all about educating people about energy balance, about balancing calorie intake with exercise, and about how little exercise it takes to burn the 140 calories in a small can of coke.

It’s a pretty weird world, isn’t it, when soft drink companies promote exercise. They also stress that many other foods are worse culprits loaded with more calories than their soft drinks. That’s’ a lot like Philip Morris claiming that alcohol or heroin kill more people than tobacco.

The Men who have Money

On her blog Food Politics, Marion Nestle wrote: ‘The ad is an astonishing act of chutzpah, explainable only as an act of desperation to do something about Coca Cola’s declining sales in the U.S. and elsewhere. If the company really wanted to help prevent obesity, it would stop

  • Targeting its “drink more Coke” marketing to kids
  • Targeting its marketing to low-income minorities
  • Fighting attempts to remove vending machines from schools
  • Pricing drinks so the largest sizes are the best value
  • Spending a fortune on lobbying to defeat soda taxes and caps on soda sizes
  • Pushing Coke sales in developing countries.’

Two recent US studies show clearly that calorie intake is substantially lower in schools with restrictions on junk food sales. The same article cites research findings that obesity rates among children aged 6 to 11 have quadrupled over the past four decades in the USA, and that more than 23 million kids and teenagers (nearly 1 in 3) are obese or overweight as a result. In Australia, it’s over 1 in 4, yet governments refuse to take action even when facing a tsunami of rising health costs in the next couple of decades.

The Men who Tell Stories

Coca Cola won the 2013 Creative Marketer of the Year Award at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and dozens of awards in the USA and Europe. At none of the presentations did the speakers acknowledge the elephant in the room, nor did the flood of PR that followed.

Image Source: Progmic

‘We are humbled and honoured to receive this honour,’ Coca Cola’s chief marketing and commercial officer Joe Tripodi said this when accepting the award. ‘The legacy we want to leave is of a brand and company that does good things for the world and speaks to optimism, positivity and happiness.’

What can we possibly add to that? An emboldened Coca Cola marketing team released a two-part video, Content 2020, which talks about moving from ‘creative excellence to content excellence,’ and shifting towards ‘storytelling to reach out to new customers.’

Marketing agency Econsultancy gives us a brief glance at the dark side: ‘Its content marketing strategy cleverly keeps your eyes off the unhealthy aspect of the brand by promoting all the good that the company does.’

Then it’s back to all the good things Coca Cola does before Econsultancy sums up: 'The Coca Cola company is now more than a drinks company. In our environmentally aware, health conscious world it has turned into a campaigning organisation. A brand that people can be proud to be associated and engage with.’

The Men who bought the Stars

Marketers can be sleazy but celebrities are worse. The New York Times reports that Pepsi paid Beyoncé Knowles $50 million for ‘renting her image to a product that may one day be ranked with cigarettes as a killer we were too slow to rein in.’ The author is quick to add that Madonna, Mariah Carey, Elton John and David Beckham are among the many stars who’ve done the same. ‘Seemingly, no celebrities turn down endorsement deals for ethical reasons,’ the New York Times concludes.

The article also points out that Michael Jordan, Elton John and Bill Cosby have done the same for Coke. Then it gets to the heart of the matter: ‘The current system is working great: every aspect of the media industry that can pull in soda money is happy to take it … Whether Beyoncé Knowles really believes in Pepsi’s public statement … about its “unique commitment to sustainable growth by investing in a healthier future for people and our planet” is impossible to know.’

Perhaps this is a question we should ask more often: why are our kids' idols topping up their already bulging fortunes by helping large corporations to make kids sick, when they could do a power of good by being strong role models for kids? More detail in The Men who made us Fat on ABC’s IView.

My Sweet Lord 

Britain’s sugar tax on soft drinks came into effect in April 2018, and within weeks cut sugar content in drinks by 45 million kg per year, according to Reuters, because over half the manufacturers reformulated their products to sit below the levy’s sugar threshold.

‘Our teenagers consume nearly a bathtub of sugary drinks each year,’ said Health Minister Steve Brine, ‘fuelling a worrying obesity trend in this country.’ Some 28 countries have introduced a tax on sugar, among them Hungary, Mexico, France, Chile and South Africa.

Australia is lagging behind as usual. The Beverages Council boasted that it had successfully warded off "any legitimate threat of a discriminatory tax", according to the Sydney Morning Herald. ‘The soft drink industry said its fight against a sugar tax was "consuming vast amounts of resources",’ the Herald reported, ‘but by lobbying politicians and bureaucrats it had managed to keep the policy off the table.’

As a result, both major parties have opposed a tax on sugar, with the Turnbull government saying it stands ‘zero chance’ (presumably no pun intended). We can safely assume that large amounts of contributions flowed into the major parties’ coffers to ensure their complicity. Once again, Turnbull missed an opportunity to make himself a hero, and once again Shorten failed to show any signs of courage.

Chain of Fools

The Conversation cites research modelling which concluded that ‘Twenty five years after the introduction of the tax, there would be 4,400 fewer cases of heart disease and 1,100 fewer strokes. An estimated 1,600 people would be alive as a result of the tax. Overall, the savings to the health-care system would add up to $609 million.’

The Conversation adds that Australians bought over a billion litres of sugary drinks in 2015 at a cost of $2.2 billion, just from supermarkets. In other words, this figure doesn’t include soft drinks bought from fast-food outlets, petrol stations, cinemas, vending machines, hotels or convenience stores.

The beverage council’s CEO Geoff Parker claimed that Australians gets less than 2% of their daily calories from soft drinks. The ABC quoted Parker who said, ‘ … simply to slap a tax on the 2 per cent whilst ignoring the other 98% … is a Band-Aid solution for a far more complex problem.’

That statement stunned me, coming from this source, since I couldn’t agree more. As you’ve read in this book so far, the food chain the majority of Australians follow promotes obesity and disease, so tackling one small element would hardly make a big difference.

My surprise soon gave way to feelings of déjȧ vue when I read the next edict from Mr Parker: The introduction of a tax on soft drinks would be a slippery slope that could see ‘the government imposing other taxes down the track on foods such as burgers or pizza.’

That’ll be the Day

I suspect the attraction of a sugar tax lies in the quick fix which allows politicians to claim that they’re taking decisive action. In reality, they’re rearranging a few deckchairs on the Titanic. The sugar in soft drinks is the tiny tip of a gigantic iceberg.

Meals and cooking sauces sold in supermarkets contain between 3 and 8 teaspoons of added sugar per 15 to 30 grams, according to Choice. Things like cereals and bread are loaded with sugar, as are commercial yoghurts and low-fat dairy, muesli bars, granola bars, protein bars, energy drinks, and even iced tea.

Why don’t our leaders show some courage and stop supermarkets from promoting junk food to our grandkids, directly or indirectly? What about introducing nutrition quality standards for the fast food industry? What about cleaning up the whole food chain that is making millions of us sick? Why aren’t our health agencies and medical associations jumping up and down, demanding action?

Fat Chance

Not with ‘leaders’ who’re constantly looking over their shoulders instead of toward the future and the needs of their constituents. Health Minister Hunt minces weasel words like ‘voluntary code of conduct and adequate labelling,’ while his opposite number Tanya Plibersek mumbles that it’s a complex issue. Only the Greens are talking straight. More Here.

It is a complex issue alright because a sugar tax will simply see the soft drink makers replace one bad ingredient with another: artificial sweeteners. Last year we saw a report from researchers who analysed 37 studies on artificial sweeteners, which followed 400,000 people for some 10 years. It found that those who consumed one or more artificially-sweetened drinks a day had an increased risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Lead author of the study Brian Hoffmann said artificial sweeteners appeared to ‘contribute to metabolic disorders by altering the activity of certain genes responsible for the breakdown of macromolecules such as fats and proteins.’ A previous study found that ‘diet soda consumption, either independently or in conjunction with other dietary and lifestyle behaviours, may lead to weight gain, impaired glucose control, and eventual diabetes.’

More Men who Made us Fat

Even self-interest hasn’t given our leaders pause, because they close their eyes to the tsunami that’s about to sweep over the nation’s health systems and budgets.

ABS estimates put the total annual cost of obesity at around $58 billion, including health system costs, loss of productivity and the cost of carers. A different review of the same 2005 data in 2010 came up with a total cost of $56.6 billion. These are the latest figures we have, which is hard to believe given the growing size of this issue.

Their inaction makes it clear that our leaders are happy to team up with the men who made us fat, happy to be part of the problem. I know it’s hard to comprehend, but it looks like we have no choice but to fight them on our own if we want our kids and grandkids to grow up fit and healthy. These are the enemies:

  • the global corporations and their giant marketing budgets
  • the supermarkets that block the checkouts with their rancid wares
  • the petrol stations, cinemas, 7/11 stores and newsagents who do the same
  • our governments who refuse to do anything


Kim Brebach
Content Chief

I've always loved people and words. As long as I can remember, I've been a story-teller and the team here says I'm pretty good at it. That's probably why I head up the Content Team: I create the arc of the story and others add their magic. 

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