Obesity Fear Frenzy Grips Food Industry
Why Coke's Creative Chief Esther Lee Isn't Alone
in Fearing FTC, Critics
By Stephanie Thompson and Kate Macarthur
Published: April 23, 2007
"Our Achilles heel is the discussion about
obesity," Coca-Cola Co. Chief Creative Officer
Esther Lee confessed to attendees at the Venice
Festival of Media last week. "It's gone from a
small, manageable U.S. issue to a huge global
issue. It dilutes our marketing and works against
it. It's a huge, huge issue."
And it's getting even bigger as the Federal Trade
Commission takes the extreme step of issuing
compulsory requests for information from 44 food,
beverage and quick-service restaurant chains this
summer. The goal is to get a "more complete
picture" of their kid-marketing practices,
especially in the unplumbed arenas of in-store
promotions, events, packaging, internet marketing
and product placement in video games, movies and
Industry observers note McDonald's is also likely
to be running scared, whether or not there is a
smoking gun. "It's clearly a witch hunt," said one
industry executive, and if anyone is to be picked
as the scapegoat it's likely to be the fast feeder
which, he said, buys as much media for the
6-to-11-year-old set as other marketers spend on
their entire annual budget.
More pressure on marketers
Going after companies individually cranks up the
heat on marketers like McDonald's and Coke who
have already been feeling plenty. Though the food
industry has scrambled to rein in efforts targeted
at young children and dedicate at least half of
advertising to older kids toward more healthful
offerings, politicians and pundits aren't pleased
enough with the industry's collective effort.
It's "a wake-up call that time is running out,"
said Tim Stock, managing director at ScenarioDNA.
Marketers are "all worried at some level. They
know something has to change. And it's not about
advertising. It's about going back to the product
drawing board and creating a sustainable brand."
The problem, though, is whose definition of
sustainable you're using -- that of consumers or
that of the government -- as better-for-you brands
are not necessarily what consumers are looking
for. "In marketing, usually, you follow what
consumers want and figure out how to give it to
them, but in this instance, people aren't looking
for these healthier products and the ones who are
probably are not the ones whose children are
overweight," said a top executive of a marketing
Broad, worrisome probe
Ron Urbach, partner at law firm Davis & Gilbert,
said there is certainly cause for concern because
the "food sector continues to get probed and
prodded even after taking significant action." The
new probe is particularly worrisome because it
covers such a broad scope, looking at all media
and marketing activities to kids under 18. "The
more you probe, the more you find."
Association of National Advertisers Exec
VP-Government Relations Dan Jaffe balked at the
fact that despite "already enormous and
well-developed" changes to marketing and
new-product portfolios, "still people are saying
more, more, more."
He doesn't believe the new FTC demand will drive
marketers to make more significant changes to
their marketing and new-product initiatives aimed
at kids, as they have "already stepped forward and
spent multiple billions of dollars to create
healthier options, advertise them heavily" and
have pledged to do even more as part of the
Children's Food & Beverage Advertising Initiative.
Sharing the blame
The industry also lays blame on the government.
Mr. Jaffe cited the cancellation of the Center for
Disease Control's activity-driving VERB campaign
aimed at kids and said the CDC's nutrition and
physical-activity programs are in place in only 22
of the 50 states. "This is a multifaceted issue,"
he said. "Advertising alone cannot be implicated."
Even critic Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas,
acknowledges that changes to advertising won't
solve the obesity problem. But he told a recent
Kaiser Family Foundation panel "advertising is a
target ... one I think that we can address and
move forward with quickly." Contributing: Ira