The 'responsibility deal' may usher in a new era of 'healthwash'

Fast food: brands like McDonald's signed up to calorie counts
Fast food: brands like McDonald's signed up to calorie counts

Chris Arnold, creative partner of Creative Orchestra and author of 'Ethical Marketing & The New Consumer', considers what today's 'responsibility deal' means for marketers.

I'm no fan of legislation, so I welcome the government's voluntary 'responsibility deal' initiative unveiled today. But the problem with self-regulation is that you have to trust all the players to support and abide by any agreement and do what is right.

So it’s no surprise that a few don’t want to play, fearing the cost of doing so. While Pizza Hut, KFC and McDonald’s have pledged to display calories on menu boards, Pizza Express has opted out saying it is ‘not consumer-friendly and clutters its menus’. This is pathetic and poor.

The pizza restaurant industry certainly has a lot to lose, the average 12" pizza is a mega calorie meal – 1122 kcal - and few people realise it. We all expect fried chicken and hamburgers to be calorific, a Big Mac is 490kcal, but a Subway 6" double meat Italian BMT sandwich? Shockingly it has a massive 630kcals in. It’s not surprising that Subway is another brand that doesn’t want to be involved in this.

As we see consumers get more and more conscious of what they eat, calories displays in restaurants might have a damaging effect upon sales. There are two ways brands can respond, first reduce calories (and other junk in the food) and produce healthier products, which is probably the ethical thing to do.

The unethical way is to market the products in a way which distracts consumers from the shocking realities. As anyone who has tried to diet knows, when it comes to food and drink, temptation overrides our sense of reason. And marketing is very good at putting temptation in our way.

No doubt brands, forced to sell healthier options, will use a lot of spin to make themselves look good, so forget ‘greenwash’, I’m introducing a new term -  ‘healthwash’.

The drink industry and retailers have been under enormous pressure to raise awareness of units and make drinkers aware of their consumption rates. Sainsbury’s, for example, has unit signage alongside its displays. Many brands have been involved in these schemes for a while with little evidence that it’s affected sales if we are to believe media figures claiming drinking is up.

But one question I ask, even though consumers know what a discount looks like, do they understand calorie and unit numbers? If they don’t, then none of this will affect sales and people will carry on eating and drinking too much because sadly, consumers take very little responsibility for their bodies.

Chris Arnold is creative partner of Creative Orchestra and author of Ethical Marketing & The New Consumer. He is also working on a new book, ‘What does 100 calories looks like?.

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