Food companies and their advertising agencies should take the initiative to promote healthy eating habits to help counteract a growing U.S. obesity epidemic, U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona said on Friday.
Carmona said he did not seek regulatory changes to food advertising-for example a warning note to eat the showcased product in correct proportion and as part of a balanced diet-but cited steps already taken by marketers, including No. 1 burger chain McDonald’s Corp., to revamp product lines and raise consumer awareness of healthier food.
“We took a practical approach…so (agencies) will always be thinking of how can I shape this client’s product so they’ll sell this product but there will be some healthy association,” Carmona said at an advertising conference in Miami.
He said such an approach was preferable to public lawsuits that have challenged food companies for contributing to overeating by a barrage of advertising and large portions.
Carmona told advertising executives at the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ Management Conference that an estimated 400,000 Americans die each year from obesity-related health problems, creeping up on some 440,000 who die from diseases tied to cigarette smoking.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched an advertising campaign last month to promote simple lifestyle changes to lose excess weight by snacking on fruits and vegetables or taking the stairs instead of an escalator.
The campaign includes a partnership with public television’s Sesame Street program for children. Carmona said he would like to target a message of well-being to other groups, from teenagers to families, via other media outlets including MTV and Walt Disney Co.
Asked whether the current craze over low carbohydrate diets, such as Atkins and the South Beach diet, was healthy, Carmona said carbohydrates should not be skipped altogether.
“I’m concerned about any diet that purports to be a quick fix,” he said. “The fact is that most of them fail in the long term.”
Advertising executives said their clients sought new tactics for selling food without getting drawn into the obesity battle, including using well-known figures from commercials to send a new message.
“We’ve changed a lot of things about Ronald McDonald in terms of him being an advocate of healthy foods,” Cheryl Berman, chairman and chief creative officer at the Leo Burnett USA agency, told Reuters, referring to the clown-like mascot of client McDonald’s. “You have to use the icons (of advertising). They’re very powerful.”
Part of the Publicis Groupe, Leo Burnett also works with top food companies such as Kellogg Co.
Revision date: July 9, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD