There’s only one solution to doctors’ health messages: ban them

January 22, 2010

Better for your daily health requirements

Not long ago, if you bit into a Kraft Oreo, munched some McDonald’s fries or tucked into a Kentucky Fried Chicken leg, the chances were you would be ingesting a nasty, toxic substance called trans fatty acid. Consume enough of it and it won’t do your health any good at all. It’s known to cause heart problems, by promoting “bad” cholesterol at the expense of “good”; and it’s also a suspect in other disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes and infertility.

In small, probably harmless, doses, trans fatty acid is found in nature – especially in dairy products. The reason intake of the stuff reached epidemic proportions was because it can be synthesised easily and makes a cheap and superficially attractive alternative to butter-based saturated fats and lard. As such, it provides a useful shortening agent in baked products and can also be counted upon to extend shelf-life well beyond its natural span.

It is not a new discovery. The processed food industry has been using it, in increasing concentrations, for most of the past 100 years. The bio-chemical formula was first adopted by a UK company which later became a part of Unilever. In the same year, 1909, Procter & Gamble acquired the US rights and promptly launched Crisco, a shortening product that was based on hydrogenated cotton-seed oil (it still exists, but under different ownership, and in a different formulation). At the time, nothing was known of the lethal side effects of trans fatty acids. Indeed, the delusion continued to exist well into the sixties that trans fatty acids, found in various margarine products, were not only cheaper, but actually better for you.

What was the medical profession doing all this time? For most of the past century, it was being about as ineffectual in exposing the ill-effects of these fats as it was in combatting the well-known health-hazards of tobacco and alcohol. This was not because of a total absence of pathological evidence. On the contrary, indications of a possible connection with cancer began to emerge as early as the 1940s. There was reasonable doubt; it’s just that no one seemed to want to voice it in public.

I mention all this because doctors  have now adopted a high moral tone in calling for the banning of these man-made fats. The fact is, the horse has already bolted. Although Britain hasn’t – unlike Denmark, New York, California, Australia, Switzerland and Austria – actually prohibited the stuff, a quiet self-denying ordinance has already been put in place by UK food manufacturers and retailers. The latter made a pledge back in 2006 to eliminate it from all their own-label brands, which they have now fulfilled and Big Food is beating a hasty retreat. For this we have a public health campaign,, and the so-called Project Tiburon, to thank. It originated in 2003 with a court case against Kraft in California which then snowballed. I don’t recall the British medical profession being particularly vocal at the time. We had to wait until July 29, 2006 for an editorial in the British Medical Journal promoting “better labelling,” which seems to have stopped well short of calling for trans fats to be banned.

There’s nothing quite like jumping on a bandwagon, however, once someone else has got it rolling for you. A similar “bannist” tendency may be seen in the medical profession’s approach to alcohol advertising. No finer example of the genre exists than Professor Gerard Hastings’ recent polemical article in the BMJ.

His proposals for tightening up advertising regulation (to include among other things a 9pm watershed, digital and sponsorship restrictions) bear an uncanny resemblance to the recommendations just published by the Commons health select committee. Indeed, if I did not know better, I would have thought he had single-handedly masterminded them. So I don’t underestimate his influence as a lobbyist.

And yet, closely argued though the paper is, it somehow misses the point. Whatever impact marketing communications may have on increasing consumption of alcohol, it is scarcely the principal villain behind our lamentable ‘binge culture’. A better place to look for major remedial correction would be our unhinged drinking hours, below-cost supermarket offers (which most brands abhor) and a decline in social standards (not all of which can be blamed on the advertising industry). Hastings, however, is not notably interested in any of this. The true nature of his agenda is revealed in the last paragraph of his article, where he cites former advertising luminary David Abbott’s views on tobacco advertising. The only really satisfactory solution to alcohol advertising is to ban it, it seems.


Why the fat’s in the fire for KFC

May 13, 2009

1-KFCGrilledChicken-051109“We had very big projections numbers on this, but not in our wildest imagination could we believe the response we’ve gotten…But, in fact, it’s been so big, it’s been overwhelming.”

Who’s this speaking? Some frightened executive at Hoover, perhaps, after its infamous promotion went so wrong? Well, not far off. It’s US KFC president Roger Eaton fessing up to one of the worst marketing disasters in years on the Oprah Winfrey show.

Eaton is a very experienced operator. Over 13 years, he’s handled numerous senior marketing and operational roles at Yum Restaurants, which owns KFC. KFC itself is a blue-chip retailer with turnover of about $5.3bn in the States and something like 5,300 franchises. As a marketing operation, they don’t come much more professional than that.

So, how has KFC managed – in a matter of days – to seriously alienate three of its main constituencies, consumers, the media and its franchisees?

Like many of these things, each individual step of the operation looked well thought-out, sensible even. It was the overall contingency planning that was abysmal.

KFC has a pressing problem – its core product, fried chicken, isn’t very healthy. Enter KFC grilled chicken, a constructive alternative. Sounds all right, until you remember the “F” in the middle of the brand name, and hear that the creative concept was “Unthink KFC”. 

But all this was a mooncast shadow compared with what came next. Someone had the bright idea of promoting two pieces of the new product plus a biscuit free on the Oprah Winfrey show, provided viewers downloaded a coupon within two days. Guess what? The offer was brilliantly successful and jet-propelled the retailer to the number one topic on Twitter.

And, guess what again? The company couldn’t fulfil the offer and rapidly had to revoke it . “Riots” were reported in New York KFC outlets. Consumers complained about rude service from franchisees who were caught on the hop, and the media took pot shots at a PR team (led by, would you believe it, someone called Schalow) that wasn’t up to the job.

So, KFC has handed out 4 million free meals in two days and a lot of free Pepsi to the 6 million or so people who couldn’t participate. And what it got back was a bloody nose.

Give him credit though. When the chips were down, Eaton dealt with the crisis manfully. He didn’t hide under his office desk (see Hoover). He took control immediately things went disastrously wrong and fronted the TV apology personally, on the very programme that had proved his nemesis.

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