If you decrease the portion size of a fat-saturated processed junk food, the average punter will eat less. Just as the average, 20-a-day Joe will smoke 18 fewer fags every 24 hours if you reduce the number of cigarettes in the packet from 20 to 2, I suppose.
The reasoning is utterly specious, but it appears that Kraft got away with it last week. Better – and more shocking – still, the carefully orchestrated, globally co-ordinated PR initiative positioned the company as the concerned, caring good guy, committed to healthy diets for all.
Disregarding issues of principle, this was masterful PR. But, if principle is important, this was PR at its shabbiest and most shameful. It is an abject demonstration of the way in which PR can create and then exploit an agenda of apparent corporate responsibility to promote a brand, enhance its status, and to set out a stall that provides pre-emptive evidence to guard a company’s reputation against future attack. We are witnessing the preliminary distortion which, through repetition over years to come, will establish as fully accepted fact Kraft’s credentials as a responsible business with consumers’ best interests at its (cholesterol free) heart.
From the New York Times: “The rise in obesity is a complex public health challenge of global proportions,” [Kraft] co-chief executive, Betsy D. Holden, said. “Just as obesity has many causes, it can be solved only if all sectors of society do their part to help. Kraft is committed to product choices and marketing practices that will help encourage healthy lifestyles and make it easier to eat and live better.”
This is mind-boggling doublethink, and a slimy territorial invasion by the manufacturers of Dairylea Lunchables, named Britain’s worst kind of lunchbox food in a survey of 800 parents last year. Kraft portrays itself as the wise stentorian leader driving society forward in a battle to secure good dietary practice: a visionary, saving us from our poor benighted selves. Suddenly, the enemy is part of the real food lobby. Kraft is one of us: a company with a mission at one with the world (which happens to provide it with a $30bn turnover).
In PR terms, this is a superb sleight of hand: Betsy’s apparently off-the-cuff words came from a cuff of intricately woven fabric, tailored over many months to match a new costume devised by commercial strategists during extensive planning. PR was central to that plan from the outset.
The inversion (processed food producer = guardian of good health) mirrors a New Labour favourite: as Blair shifted the party to the right, towards socially regressive, conservative policies, those who sought to promote a radical leftwing agenda were branded “reactionary”. Nice one.
Again from the New York Times: “Executives at Kraft, which is majority owned by the tobacco giant the Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris), said today that companies could no longer ignore the looming health crisis. “Kraft wants to be part of the solution,” said [spokesman] Michael Mudd.”
Which rather begs the question: if your company is so interested in being part of the solution, Mr. Mudd, why did it create the problem? Or has Kraft only just become aware that there might be health issues attached to over-consumption of processed foods? Clearly not. The planners identified an impending crisis (just ask McDonalds) and PR provided the solution, via a re-interpretation of the brand that would dig the company out of a commercial hole.
(As a side note, if Kraft was to sell its new-found principles to the group, Philip Morris would stop selling cigarettes now. Since this won’t happen, I assume Kraft’s principles relate to other, more pecuniary interests).
What are they up to? First, Kraft specialists will “examine” Kraft foods for their health-giving properties (cynics might suggest that the three year time scale would be insufficient to find any); then they promise to remove sugary snacks and canned drinks from schools; next they aim to spearhead a global council of advisers to develop policies, standards and procedures and reduce the size of single-portion products; and finally they intend to shape global marketing guidelines to ensure that kids aren’t preyed upon too much by manufacturers of junk.
This is all very socially responsible. “Examining the health-giving properties” is an artful phrase that (subconsciously) positions Kraft products as nutritious; the writing is on the wall for drinks/snacks in schools anyway (New York City has just banned them), so you may as well exploit the trend and pick up some (carb-rich) brownie points on the way. And finally, if you want to ensure that legislation accommodates your products and your marketing techniques, there’s no better way than shaping the legislation in the first place. There is no cynicism in this interpretation: the only cynicism is Kraft’s.
Ultimately, what has caused Kraft’s road to Damascus? Kraft spokesman Richard Johnson denied the fear of lawsuits had prompted the company’s actions. “It’s not the prime motivation, but if it makes lawsuits less likely, then that’s good too”. So, we are to conclude that this is all whiter-than-white, and the prevention of an expensive embarrassment in the courts is a welcome bonus.
Well, isn’t that lucky?