The food industry is an ingenious beast when it comes to persuading consumers to swallow information about the benefits of their foods. It’s a long-term investment for them to manufacture attitudes towards their product and they’ll go to any length to plug it, covertly or openly. Usually, stealth is the favoured action.
There’s a story in the news at the moment that illustrates this perfectly; an American university has been attempting to make the humble pizza a healthier option by baking it for longer at hotter temperatures. The university claims that they’re “not trying to make junk food more healthy” but are “providing hard scientific data so people who bake can improve the food they make”.
Even if this is the case and there is not some corporate giant of the pizza industry behind the study, this is the sort of research that Dominos, for example, will lap up with as much gusto as the American nation consumes pizza. They apparently eat 90 acres of pizza a day – that amounts to roughly 45 football fields-worth of pizza consumed each day. No doubt Dominos or one of their rivals will get a faceless representative to spin it out as a new health initiative for the company in the near future, whether or not they’ve actually applied the techniques described.
Here’s a good example of the core thinking of food companies, however it is presented in the press: I sat in a room a while back with a (now ex) food client, looking at the opposition with them and trying to further their cause. “If you want to clean up your image,” I innocently suggested, “why not announce you’re going to take out all trans fats and additives.” They looked at me as if I’d just landed from Mars (the planet, I should add, not the chocolate brand which used to claim it would help you work, rest and play).
There’s a long tradition of these sorts of play offs and continuations of brands. The father of PR, Edward Bernays, promoted Lucky Strike cigarettes to fat-conscious women with the tag line “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”, largely supported by the medical profession, without anyone knowing it was his client, the American Tobacco Company, behind it. It was inspired PR but had a long-term deleterious effect on thousands of people.
If PR is used effectively, a corporation can spin out its brand forever. The fact is that no one knows exactly what goes into foods – thanks to PR companies following in the tradition of Bernays. Given the rise and rise of health consciousness, however, the corporations are now playing a waiting game.
With the rise of grassroots organisations like Farmers Markets, the public have been alerted to better tasting, more sustainable food supplies and wants to know what the multinationals are putting in their foods. So what’s a good PR company to do to help? All too often, they put conscience aside and spin for all they’re worth until nobody knows the exact facts and figures. When they are found out, they employ delaying tactics to prevent too much immediate backlash.
All such confusion and subterfuge is a definite ploy to make sure they’re still around to become brand leaders in a brave new health conscious world. The fact that nobody knows all the detail is a PR victory.
All the same, most claims are rumbled eventually. A case in point is the recently reported one in which two New Zealand schoolgirls humbled GlaxoSmithKline after their science experiment, which aimed to prove that cheaper brands were less healthy, actually proved that the multinational’s claim that Ribena contained masses more Vitamin C than orange juice was bunkum. Whilst it is true that blackcurrants contain four times as much of the vitamin than oranges, the girls discovered that Ribena didn’t.
A GlaxoSmithKline representative, true to the traditions mentioned above, has said that this only affected some products in Australia and New Zealand and that they have conducted “thorough laboratory testing of vitamin C levels in Ribena in all other markets. This testing has confirmed that Ribena drinks in all other markets, including the UK, contain the stated levels of vitamin C, as described on product labels.”
No mention of who conducted the tests or what the details of the testing were. Time for more schoolchildren to get testing, I’d say. And not just on Ribena.