'Nanny doesn't always know best' was the response of the Advertising Association's Food Advertising Unit (FAU) to the government's White Paper on public health. The rebuke, delivered at the FAU's annual conference last month, just after the White Paper was published, came as FAU director Jeremy Preston described how the government has ignored the marketing community on the subject and provided 'a litany of prescriptive ideas that will not bring solutions'.
As Preston displayed a slide headed 'Advice to government', with the nanny line providing the final point, Imogen Sharp, head of health improvement and prevention at the Department of Health (DoH) - and a late-arriving speaker at the conference - entered the room and walked down the aisle to take her seat at the front. The moment was not lost on the smiling audience members, who would shortly take up far more than the allotted time for questions, vainly asking Sharp to clarify what marketers must do to avoid a ban on advertising food to children in 2007.
Despite official protestations that companies are willing and eager to help the DoH reduce consumers' overeating, smoking and binge drinking, the relationship between government and the food and drink sector is strained at best. Preston referred to the 'deafening silence' that he and his colleagues met when trying to discuss the issue with those drawing up the White Paper, and appealed for the government to engage with the industry in a more constructive way. 'Where is the partnership?' he asked. 'We want our consumers to lead long and healthy lives for obvious reasons, but there is real menace behind some of the language in the White Paper.'
Part of the industry's exasperation stems from the realisation that its lobbying had failed to rule out the possibility of packaging restrictions and some form of ban on advertising food to children, which could be brought in during 2007 if the government is not satisfied with the self-regulation over which Ofcom will now preside.
The food industry believes Ofcom has a more rational, considered attitude than the more politically motivated DoH and Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and there is relief that a complete ad ban has been ruled out. But there is still anxiety that some restrictions on advertising are on the cards. As Matthew Howe, head of planning and strategic development at McDonald's, points out: 'Our combined efforts seem to be losing the argument.'
The main concern is the ongoing confusion over the type of relationship with the food industry the government has in mind. 'There is a sense of hectoring and lecturing in this document that is not conducive to a good partnership,' says ISBA director of public affairs Ian Twinn.
The industry is worried that the government appears to be more concerned with the anti-advertising sentiments expressed by members of the public during the White Paper's consultation period than with the evidence of research into advertising's contribution to childhood obesity. Sharp told the audience at the FAU conference that the 'number-one response that came from the consultation was that the public wants a tightening (of the rules) on advertising'.
She also elicited sharp intakes of breath from marketers and agency executives by drawing comparisons between the effect of food and drink advertising on children's diets and tobacco promotion on smoking levels. 'All the evidence shows that advertising's effect on children's food preferences is about 2%-5% - a not insignificant effect and about the same level we worked with on the tobacco issue,' Sharp argued.
Categorising food with tobacco is not an attitude that is going to win the government friends among the food companies. The industry has always been keen to avoid the kind of confrontational relationship with the government and the European Commission that typified the wrangle over tobacco promotion and resulted in an ad ban. Over the past two years, the World Health Organisation has dealt with the food sector during research for its Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, and has been careful to emphasise that the issues surrounding the two industries were very different.
It is the issue of nutrient profiling and on-pack signposting that has the most potential to alienate food and drink companies. Two weeks ago, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) unveiled its initial model of nutrient profiling for the industry and public to comment on. It also revealed details of the two systems of signposting that consumers favour: a simple traffic light of red, amber and green to indicate how often food should be eaten, and a multiple traffic light that would indicate high, medium or low levels of each of the key nutrients.
Inevitably, processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt would end up bearing a red warning sign. But the industry is worried that products such as cheese, which is high in fat but also contains other much-needed nutrients such as calcium, would fall into the red category by virtue of its fat content alone.
The Food and Drink Federation and British Retail Consortium both have representatives on the seven-strong panel of dieticians and nutritionists that has developed the profiling model and signposting suggestions, though this hasn't stopped some accusing the FSA of stacking the odds against the industry. The intrinsic problem is that the FSA wants a simple system to make it more likely that consumers will use it, while the food industry believes that oversimplifying the issue is damaging. It prefers the Guideline Daily Amount system, but the FSA's research found that this was confusing for consumers.
The food industry feels backed into a corner by the FSA's intention that the signposting system, although voluntary, should act as a means of encouraging manufacturers to alter the composition of products to avoid red labels. 'We believe the signposting system will give manufacturers an incentive to reduce some of the more unhealthy elements,' says Rosemary Hignett, the FSA's head of nutrition. 'It should be viewed as a positive way to encourage innovation.'
The government is in uncharted territory on this issue. Hignett acknowledges that the FSA has been unable to find any examples abroad of signposting systems similar to those being proposed, and the European Commission's legal affairs committee dropped a nutrient-profiling system from an EU directive on nutrition and health that is under consideration.
The net effect is a feeling that the industry is under attack. 'You can't say that what you want is partnership if your partners are under siege and their products are being demonised, says Andrew Brown, director of the Advertising Association. 'If a traffic light system of packaging were brought in, great swathes of the food industry would be under threat.'
Sharp denies that the DoH has failed to engage with the food industry.
She told Marketing: 'Industry never likes the prospect of regulation, but I don't accept that the government hasn't listened to the food industry on this subject. We've had constructive and informed discussions with the trade bodies. But it wouldn't have been right for us to respond to specific suggestions before we actually published the White Paper.'
The government is keen for a collaborative relationship, not least because it wants food and drink marketers to play a major role in educating consumers about healthier lifestyles, complementing a cross-departmental government campaign to combat obesity. 'If the government were seen to be leading the campaign, it would look like nannying,' says Sharp.
This follows a comment earlier in the year from culture secretary Tessa Jowell, who said she hoped food firms would 'use their creative millions' to help combat obesity. But how keen will companies be to work with ministers who are pushing for the virtual blacklisting of its products? 'If the government is saying that some products are evil, the companies that make and sell those products are hardly going to play ball,' says ISBA's Twinn. 'It has to be a two-way relationship.'
Companies central to the debate have already invested in their own campaigns to encourage healthier lifestyles.
McDonald's sponsors local football, Kellogg devotes pack space to healthy living ideas, Cadbury launched an ill-fated sports equipment scheme and Walkers, Kellogg and McDonald's have all either given away or subsidised pedometers.
Will they want to commit further funds when their efforts so far have gone unrecognised? Probably not, believes an insider who has worked with several food manufacturers and retailers on this issue. 'The industry's hand is staying firmly in its pocket,' he says. 'Companies are only too aware of the widespread demonisation that Cadbury attracted after it launched its sports equipment promotion, and a lot of that criticism came from MPs.' Indeed, he suggests that the government's requests for funding have already fallen on deaf ears in the food industry, with companies preferring to wait for the results of the signposting and nutrient-profiling projects.
A spokeswoman for the COI says that no plans have yet been made for an anti-obesity campaign, let alone how it would be funded. But sources suggest it would probably offer some kind of planning role to contributing companies.
There is a precedent for this idea. In April last year, tourism authority VisitBritain launched a campaign to encourage people to visit rural areas of England. It was funded partially by central government, but also by local and regional tourism authorities and 25 private travel and tourism firms, including the Marriott hotel group. The press ads were financed by, and featured, hotels and other private tourism brands, while the TV campaign was funded by the regional bodies.
The practicalities of this arrangement were challenging. Ad agency WCRS initially presented creative ideas to a panel of 30 people. After some time, this panel was reduced to five, who contributed directly to the finished work.
The issue of whether it is the job of the government or the private sector to educate consumers about the pitfalls of over-consumption has also arisen in the alcoholic drinks sector.
Diageo is keen to portray itself as socially responsible and has launched various initiatives to encourage sensible drinking, most recently setting up a website (www.drinkaware.co.uk) to educate consumers about sensible alcohol consumption.
It has also presented ideas (developed in association with its ad agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO) to the government for a campaign to warn young women about the dangers of binge drinking. Although the company is happy to take its own measures - interestingly, these have been produced independently of alcohol trade body The Portman Group - it feels that it lacks sufficient resources to be able to commit to the kind of national heavyweight media schedule that the campaign would need to be effective.
The idea was 'met with enthusiasm' by the three government departments to which it was presented, although it has since been shelved among the mass of public-health issues that the DoH, DCMS and Home Office need to address.
With the crucial nutrient-profiling issue now a serious sticking point between food firms and the FSA, the chances of these food companies volunteering any of their 'creative millions' to an anti-obesity campaign look remote. This is a relationship that needs plenty of work.
TIMELINE - THE NEXT STEPS
Dec 04/Jan 05: FSA stakeholder meeting with manufacturers and retailers to agree how signposting can be tested on real products.
25 Feb 05: End of consultation period on nutrient profiling. Results will inform the signposting test, unless it is held up by retailer and manufacturer objections.
Spring 05: Ofcom studies the final nutrient-profiling model, which will aid a review of the codes on advertising to children. This will be followed by a three-month public consultation.
Summer 05: Full launch of signposting.
2006: Implementation of changes to the Codes of Advertising Practice.
Early 2007: Government deadline for the overhaul in the nature and balance of food promotion to children. Possible introduction of legislation that fits in with the EU directive on nutrition and health claims, which is predicted to come into force at the end of 2005.
ESSENTIALS - OVERSEAS REGULATION ON ADVERTISING FOOD TO CHILDREN
The situation so far: Despite the scale of its obesity problem, the US is far behind the UK in attempting to regulate the advertising of food and drink to children. This reflects a different political culture: free speech, generally including commercial speech, is enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The government is obliged to seek other options to combat social problems, and the Constitution encourages the active use of 'speech' (advertising) to achieve goals.
Restrictions: New code due on 1 January 2005.
The situation so far: The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland's new code will forbid the use of, or reference to, celebrities or sports stars in food and drink ads aimed at children. Ads will have to carry a health message, and those for sugary products will have to carry a sonic or visual message stating that they can damage teeth. The industry is still pressing for clarification of the rules, which apply only to broadcast media. The code will be reviewed after a year.
Restrictions: Health messages on ads or 1.5% tax.
The situation so far: The French government originally allowed a form of self-regulation. But this was deemed not to have worked, so it is to instigate a controversial plan that will require health messages on ads for certain foods. Companies can dodge this by paying a 1.5% levy on their annual adspend to fund public health campaigns, a route most firms are expected to take. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin had proposed a 5% tax, which manufacturers declined to opt for.