If there’s a silver bullet to reduce obesity, brand censorship is certainly not it, writes Ron Cregan
Outgoing UK Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, has called on the government to threaten the food industry with ‘cigarette style’ plain packaging for sweets and chocolates if they fail to meet sugar reduction targets. The sugar tax programme – already in place for soft drinks – could be extended to cereals, yogurts and cakes if targets are not met by 2021, and applied to calorie-rich foods by 2024.
Dame Sally’s parting shot at the food, drink and retailing industry comes hot on the heels of the UK’s Food Ethics Council which has called for an outright ban on cartoon mascots on junk food, including fizzy drinks, crisps, cereals and biscuits, in a bid to curb obesity and diseases like diabetes.
There is a sensible debate to be had around responsible consumption, but unproven laws are not the solution.
Rather than scaring people into changing their behaviour or punishing their pockets through ‘sin taxes’ and brand censorship, legislators need to be more creative when it comes to promoting good health. While it’s not yet government policy in the UK, it soon could be. Lawmakers often take their lead from public health bodies like the Food Ethics Council and supranational organisations like the World Health Organisation, who just love to wield the ban hammer in the name of protecting public health. Chile, for example, has waged a war on unhealthy foods since 2016, with a raft of marketing restrictions, mandatory packaging redesigns and labelling rules aimed at transforming the eating habits of 18 million people.
Whilst they haven’t yet gone as far as plain packaging, the Chilean government requires packaged food companies to prominently display black stop-sign shaped warning logos on items high in sugar, salt, calories or saturated fat. They have also forced companies to remove iconic cartoon characters from packaging – effectively killing Tony the Tiger and Cheetos’ Chester Cheetah – as well as banning the sale of confectioneries such as Kinder Surprise. Even the Pringles Man now has to wear a black sticker over his moustache. Closer to home, the UK Labour Party has vowed to ban a menagerie of cartoon mascots that adorn children’s breakfast cereals, saying that refined sugar is “every bit as deadly” as tobacco, and the advertising industry’s tactic of using playful characters to appeal to children is “grossly irresponsible”. Expert witnesses Ben Pugh and dietitian and nutritionist, Dr Helen Crawley, both agree with this motion.
Earlier this year, London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, banned ‘junk food’ advertising on the Underground and other public transport. While well intentioned, this is a crude mechanism to decide the fate of food and drink products and could see entire sectors of relatively harmless products also being banned, which is exactly what happened, with adverts featuring bacon, butter and jam already falling foul.
No one is suggesting that obesity or excessive alcohol isn’t a problem. But legislating for a healthier citizenry and seeking to dictate behaviours seldom works, and can also trigger job losses (for example in the creative community) or fuel a black market in illegal trade.
It’s happening already with Ireland’s Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, which became law in October 2018, regulating advertising and promotion, insisting on mandatory cancer warnings, and banning alcohol branding from sports stadiums.
Unbranded goods provide a boon for organised crime gangs as the labels, packaging and containers are much easier to fake. Spurred on by the promise of enormous profits, the trade in unregulated illegal products represents a tempting proposition for counterfeiters, with huge costs to governments and the public alike.
Restricting marketing and communications in certain product categories and, in some cases, banning their availability altogether, can also stifle innovation and violate consumer rights. Compounding the issue is a complete lack of analysis-based dialogue between brand owners, consumers and regulators. IP laws and frameworks are positive examples of these groups working together to protect and enforce the interests of rights holders, whilst at the same time allowing consumers the freedom to make their own choices. Despite these efforts, the infringement of IP rights remains a significant problem. According to a 2019 OECD – EUIPO report, the total volume of trade in fakes was estimated at $509bn, or 3.3 percent of global trade (up from 2.5 percent in 2013).
Brand Finance estimates that the potential value loss to businesses worldwide would be $430.8bn if tobacco-style plain packaging were extended to the beverage industry.
This refers to the loss of value derived specifically from brands and does not account for further potential losses resulting from changes in price and volume of the products sold, or illicit trade. Therefore, the total damage to businesses affected is likely to be higher. Plain packaging would also lead to losses in the creative industries, including design and advertising services, which are heavily reliant on FMCG contracts. No brand has a God-given right to exist or survive. But the threat of restrictive business regulation and illicit trade will only serve to hasten their demise by undermining intellectual property rights and weakening their inherent value.
Punishment is not the way to change consumer habits. Instead of health warnings and brand censorship, we could use smart phone technology and create a scannable QR code, which consumers can use to access live nutritional and health information. The Food Ethics Council and Dame Sally Davies are right to call for a debate on how we can make the country healthier, but the negative impact of plain packaging legislation on food and drink could wreak havoc in the packaging and creative industries, causing a major headache for big retailers, with no conclusive evidence that the policy will achieve the desired health objectives. That is why education, co-operation and not legislation provide the best way forward. We need to change the tone of the language from being negative to positive. Instead of health warnings and brand censorship, we should use incentive and encouragement. This is well within the design community’s capabilities, legislators just need to be more open-minded and embrace the creative.
Ron Cregan is a Brand expert and design consultant who set up Endangered Species to highlight the challenges household brands face from excessive legislation. Over 30+ years, he’s created campaigns for brands including Coca-Cola, Diageo, Tesco, ASDA and Johnny Walker.