Archive for the ‘obesity’ Tag
Finally! The communications solution to our national obesity problem. Knowing what we do about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of campaigns focused on smoking, seatbelts and sunscreens, what should we do to combat our country’s growing waistline and resulting health care costs?
First and foremost, we must name our enemy. No more talk about “there is no such thing as bad food.” There is. Twinkies. Ben and Jerry’s. Dr. Pepper. Popcorn chicken. Doritos. These are all foods with no redeeming health benefits or with drawbacks so huge that they outweigh those benefits. That’s not to say people can never eat these foods, but we all need to acknowledge that they are BAD for us, so we should treat them as the guilty pleasure that they are. Like reality TV.
Why must we do this? Why must we antagonize the nice people at Hostess and KFC? Because if we have learned anything from our political process, it is that being against something is a much more powerful motivator than being in favor of something. Most agree that it was the anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives that drove pro-Bush voters to the polls in key swing states and got him re-elected. There are many many other examples of this.
But, just as importantly, we need to simplify this process for people. In some instances, looking for healthy signs is enough (whole grain, fresh produce). But, the low-fat craze of the 90s taught us that we can be tricked into eating foods that are, on the whole, worse for us by appealing to our obsession with one factor. It is only a matter of time before Fritos starts marketing a whole grain variety.
How will we do this? With an expensive and creative communications campaign combined with some regulatory action.
The anti-smoking campaign worked because it was funded by massive amounts of tobacco settlement money and it was multi-pronged. It included on-the-box warnings, public health education, smoking-cessation programs, and regulations restricting people’s ability to smoke in public or places of employment.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s annual budget is three-quarters of a billion dollars, with the majority going to state and local law enforcement grants to support combined enforcement and advertising campaigns such as “Click-it or Ticket.”
The current efforts to promote sunscreen use are flailing, likely due to the fact that they rely on traditional marketing alone. In spite of the multi-million dollar industry promoting SPF, tanning beds remain minimally regulated, and Hollywood continues to glamourize the golden glow.
If we are to be successful in the fight against obesity, we need to consider the following:
-Tax junk food, sodas and sweets and use 100% of the proceeds to fund programs designed to make nutritious food more available, affordable and desirable; to fund physical education classes in schools; and to fund community-based solutions that show results.
-Eliminate sugar sodas and junk foods from schools.
-Put warning labels on junk food with clear indications of the recommended daily serving of that item.
-Develop a star-studded PSA campaign to promote healthier choices.
-Market home cooking to the masses.
If we are serious about fighting this epidemic–and our rising health care costs say we should be–it is time to take serious action. The kind of action that will mobilize thousands of food industry lobbyists in opposition. The kind of action that will cause Sarah Palin to rant about government intrusion into personal choices. The kind of action that will save lives.
The big healthy eating news in July was McDonald’s announcement of the Happy Meal health makeover. Okay, perhaps makeover is too strong a word. More like putting on a nice new lipstick. Good ‘ole Ronald is cutting the size of the fries in half and adding in fresh fruit. There has been a lot of speculation about why they are doing this. In my experience, corporations are motivated by 3 factors:
1. Consumer demand (current or anticipated),
2. Profit margins, and
3. Regulatory/legal pressure.
How have these three played a role in the other issue campaigns I mentioned last time: smoking cessation, seatbelts and skin cancer prevention?
Let’s start with smoking. There is no such thing as a healthier cigarette (though the tobacco industry made a lot of dough via the insinuation with “light” cigarettes). So, the only healthy alternative to smoking cigarettes is not smoking cigarettes–clearly bad for the bottom line. And, given the addictive properties of nicotine, consumer demand was unlikely to be dramatically impacted by anti-smoking communications campaigns alone.
Enter government action. First, taxes. There is a clear link between smoking rates and the cost of cigarettes, particularly among underage smokers. When states started taxing the bojangles out of a pack of smokes, consumer demand declined. The feds also increased regulation on marketing: warning labels on packages, no broadcast ads, and less smoking in movies. When proof of the damage caused by second-hand smoke emerged, governments started limiting smoking in the workplace and public spaces. Finally, the states sued the pants off the tobacco companies for lying about the health-risks and addictive properties of cigarettes. Of note, the requirement in the settlement that the industry make payments to the states for state agencies to spend on smoking cessation and prevention programs proved genius for big tobacco. Though most states spent that money as intended in the early years on effective communication and education programs, budget demands soon sucked that money into other unrelated line items. Nonetheless, we have a lower smoking rate in the US today than we did before this combination of public policy and persuasion shamed Joe Camel.
Seatbelts is a more nuanced issue. Technically, it is possible to drive a car without your seatbelt on and cause no harm to anyone. Having lived in Massachusetts–even today, a surprisingly anti-seatbelt state–I know people who have done it. The challenge is that those low-likelihood, high-hazard car wrecks are a killer (often, literally) if you are harness free. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has done a lot of research on this topic, and they found that the secret sauce for increasing seatbelt use is primary seatbelt laws (you can get pulled over and ticketed for not wearing your seatbelt) + broadcast advertising reminding people that they will be pulled over for not wearing their seatbelt. In the states with primary seatbelt laws, usage rates average about 10% higher.
Finally, skin cancer prevention. Growing up in Florida in the 1980s has earned me many a biopsy in the interest of melanoma prevention. Those will scare anyone into buying stock in SPF 70. Plus, who doesn’t know about the risks of sun damage these days? So, it was surprising for me to learn that in the US, skin cancer rates are on the rise. Similar to the obesity epidemic, skin cancer prevention is complicated by the fact that people actually need some sun exposure to be healthy. Ironically, the Vitamin D produced by sun-to-skin contact can help prevent some cancers. Of course, the real challenge to lowering skin cancer rates is that most people believe they look better with a tan. Long-term, sunscreen fanatics age better, but see previous comments about instant v. delayed gratification.
What’s to be done about the sun? The good news is that there is an entire industry behind sun protection, and anyone who has been to a drug store knows it is a crowded field. Where there is an industry, there are big marketing dollars. Perhaps they could collude to copy some of the old tobacco tricks like using product placements in movies. Maybe Neutrogena could outbid Smartwater for a Jennifer Anniston endorsement of Helioplex SPF 100 to see if she can start a trend by abandoning her perma-tan. In the meantime, the FDA has stepped in to regulate the labeling and claims made by sunscreens, so those who do use them are clear about what they are or aren’t protected from.
Which lessons learned from these three problems can be applied to our obesity epidemic? The third and final installment is coming soon…