This is the second part of a three part series, though frankly when I reviewed the first part I thought the first one had already covered enough to be getting on with and there wasn’t much more to add. But this week they looked at advertising and product developments. Now because we all see food adverts, fast food outlets and snack products all the time it is easy to ignore them. What this programme did superbly was to analyse what is actually going on behind the scenes with these everyday experiences.
First off, portion size. This started in America in the sixties in cinemas. To get people to buy more popcorn they increased the size of the packets. This did the trick, and people started to eat more popcorn. The guy behind it was headhunted by MacDonalds, where he introduced ‘supersizing’. This not only did to the english language what their catering practices did to fine dining, it also encouraged people to eat more. It turns out that people were reluctant to appear greedy by buying a second helping, but were happy to buy a bigger portion in the first place.
The amount of thought that goes into how to generate maximum profits in fast food outlets is extraordinary. An expert was shown sizing up a city centre location. As a sit down diner it would generate around £300,000 income in a year. Make it a counter service and that would be a million. It begins to make sense that MacDonalds and Burger Kings are everywhere. The drive for profit doesn’t stop with the format of the restaurant either. Why do they all offer meal deals? (I’d have called them ingestion suggestions – you can see why I’m not in marketing.) This saves the average person 15 seconds in deciding what they are going to have – enough to increase throughput and profits. And the meal deals tend to come with options like chips and soft drinks that the punters might not have selected if left to choose for themselves.
Everyone loves fast food. But kids are particularly keen on it. They also like sweets, crisps and other snacks. In fact in Britain they spend £136M a year on them on their way to and from school. This is a huge amount, especially when you consider that almost none of that expenditure provides them with anything of nutritional value. With childhood obesity levels rising the government has been looking into ways to overcome the problem. One obvious proposal would be to stop snacks being advertised to children. But a report making exactly that recommendation was shelved, apparently after pressure from the food industry.
Snacking would seem to be a big part of it. Research has shown that eating snacks doesn’t reduce the amount you eat at your main meals. So cutting down or eliminating the snacking habit would be a great place to start. Of course, this is the exact opposite of what the advertisers are trying to get you to do. I am old enough to remember when Yorkie bars first came out. Overnight, it was discovered that lorry drivers like eating very large bars of chocolate. My father actually was a lorry driver and I can remember him buying one after seeing the adverts. This started a trend towards larger and larger chocolate bars. At one point Mars bars were available in so many different sizes you could probably have used them to make a glockenspiel. The government talked the industry into removing the king size options. They complied, but instead brought out ‘sharing’ packs and dual packs. There are very few good ideas that an average marketing department can’t wreck.
(If you are in marketing and you have got this far into the article, about 600 words, then I am not insulting you personally. You are clearly way above average in marketing.)
The food industry is a strong lobby and uses its power to push its own way of seeing things. One strand to this is to emphasise that a lot of the problem with obesity is not diet but lack of exercise. This sounds like a reasonable point. If we and our kids just became a bit more active maybe we wouldn’t all be turning into porkers. But does the research bear this out? Apparently it doesn’t. In fact it flatly contradicts it. Kids are just as active as they ever were. They are just eating more.
The tone of the programme was strident and provocative. I don’t think it really helps to portray the food industry as pantomime villains. But that doesn’t mean that they should be left to their own devices either. They have an obvious vested interest in selling us as much as they can. We are obviously eating more than we should. It seems to me that legislation is the correct response, even if it means the food industry losing profits and jobs. Even those of us who aren’t actually obese will pay the price of the ill health it causes. At the very least advertising needs to be severely reduced. And if we are serious we need to bring in taxes on processed foods and limit the locations of fast food outlets. This doesn’t absolve us of our own personal responsibility for what we eat. In fact it is just another aspect of it. We should be careful about we eat, what our family eats and what the country we live in eats.