Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Futile fight against fat

On New Year’s Day, as the Victorian and Northern Territory governments followed NSW, WA and the ACT by implementing laws preventing cigarettes from being put on display to the public, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) called for a $25 million TV and newspaper advertising campaign showing “damaged vital organs or people drinking liquefied body fat” to shock Australians into giving up junk food and sugary soft drinks.

The good doctors based their call upon a belief that the fear-based advertising campaigns used by the TAC (in Victoria) and Quit have been effective in changing behaviour around driving and smoking. The mistake that they are making is that there is much more to the change of behaviour in relation to driving and smoking than the shock advertisements that have formed part of these long social marketing campaigns.

The advertisements that the AMA are suggesting are based on similar advertisements launched by the New York Health Department in October, 2010, highlighting how much sugar is in a bottle of soft drink. A video that was released as part of the "Pouring on the Pounds" campaign aimed to “educate New Yorkers about the potentially serious health effects of consuming sugary drinks.”

One of the videos in the campaign showed a man drinking fat poured from a soft drink can with the tag saying, “drinking one can of soda a day, can make you 10 pounds fatter a year,” while another showed a man consuming sixteen packets of sugar to demonstrate the amount of sugar in an average-sized soft drink.

And at the far end of the obesity shock spectrum, a viral execution called “Break the Habit” developed as a community service by The Precinct Studio in October, 2010, featured a mother preparing to inject her son with heroin before the scene changed to show him eating a hamburger. The end tag read, “You wouldn’t inject your children with junk, so why are you feeding it to them?”

At face value, and amongst those who think that consumers are rational, thoughtful creatures that just need to be reminded of their vices to persuade them to change their behaviour, this seems like a reasonable approach.

Frighten the masses. Give 'em the facts. Change their behaviour.

But shock advertising, on its own, is unlikely to have the desired effect of getting people to stop eating junk food and eating more healthily. Research in marketing and consumer behaviour suggests that some forms of shock advertising can have the opposite effect of increasing attitudinal loyalty to the brand or the product category, particularly amongst regular users. One explanation is related to the need for the ego to protect itself against any attacks on previous decision-making, thus avoiding or combating feelings of guilt. Advocacy groups need to recognise that shock for its own sake does not change behaviour. An emotional creative execution is useful, because it helps the brain to form memory connections when our emotions are heightened, but we need to be careful not to activate the “reject” or flight response.

In a paper published in April 2010 in the Journal of Marketing Research, Nidhi Agrawal and Adam Duhachek found ads that were designed to trigger guilt amongst the target market actually triggered a defensive processing mechanism. This mechanism, they argued, was explained by the notion that people tend to think things will go much better for them than for the average person. In other words, we think our own personal greatness buffers us from all potential negative consequence, whether it’s driving, smoking, or eating junk food


Futile fight against alcohol

This wasn't just a meal deal. This was a Marks & Spencer meal deal - without alcohol. Yet when the High Street giant trialled the new version of its hugely popular Dine In For Two for œ10 offer with better quality food, but without the usual bottle of wine thrown in, it seems customers were just not interested. Instead of snapping up the deals as usual, the normally loyal shoppers took their business elsewhere, and some even spoke up about their outrage.

Now the trial has come to an end, and Marks and Spencer has no plans to repeat it - promising that the 'Dine In' offer will continue, but with a bottle of wine option included as standard.

The experiment, which was carried out in a handful of stores over the New Year, came after a series of attacks on shops for encouraging heavy drinking by offering cheap alcohol. But middle class Britons have evidently shown that they remain a pushover for bargain booze, in spite of the warnings of experts.

The Dine In For Two offer was launched in 2008 as growing recession made many consumers think twice about eating out in restaurants. In response, Marks and Spencer began offering couples a choice of ready meals for two and a side dish, along with a dessert and bottle of wine, all for œ10.

Although customers are offered a soft drink as an alternative to the wine, campaigners against alcohol abuse raised questions - and over the New Year, the trial alternative without any alcohol was tested. The new version offered upgraded gourmet ready meals - rather than the standard ready meals usually offered, as well as the usual side dish and dessert. But without the customary bottle of wine.

According to the industry magazine The Grocer, feedback on the re-jigged deal on the internet consumer forum Money Saving Expert was overwhelmingly negative. Shoppers, it appeared, feared that the popular promotion was set to change for good - and deprive them of their bottle of wine. One shopper said: 'I saw the poster in-store and thought I had misread it when I could not see the wine listed. 'Such a shame. I regularly bought the Dine In meal but it doesn't seem like such a good deal now.'

Another shopper wrote: 'Haha, this won't wash with me. No wine, no deal. Think again M&S!" A third added: 'I definitely won't be buying again. Without the wine there is no way I'd bother.'

Marks & Spencer Food business development head Jill Bruce told The Grocer the usual offer had been tinkered with as a 'test'. 'We were keen to see if Dine In could work during the festive holiday peak and if the meal offered at this time should be more special,' she said. 'To test this out, a small number of stores ran some different menus.'

She said that they had trialled more premium food options without wine as M&S had received feedback from some customers that they would prefer to choose their own wine. However she insisted: 'We have no plans to change what is a very successful promotion and will have another Dine In event in-store from January 13 with the usual combination of main, side, dessert and wine or a soft drink.'

The Dine In deal has been credited with turning round the fortunes of M&S food, and has been copied by leading High Street rivals including Waitrose and Sainsbury's.

But there have been criticisms. Last October the British Liver Trust claimed such deals should carry health warnings, as they encouraged heavy drinking among middle-aged professionals - yet were promoted in sections of stores away from the alcohol department. The charity made its claim as official statistics showed 22 per cent of the middle classes drink at least five days a week - compared to just 11 per cent of manual workers.

British Liver Trust spokeswoman Sarah Matthews said: 'These meal deals are prominently advertised and make regular drinking at that level seem like a perfectly acceptable everyday habit. They are totally wrong.' 'If a couple share a bottle of wine every night, the woman would be more than double her limit by the end of the week and the man would also be way over.'

And in September, a Scottish National Party member of the Scottish Parliament proposed making it illegal to artificially discount alcohol by combining it with food items. 'I do not believe alcohol should be used as a promotional device at all,' he said.


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