Sunday, April 10, 2005

The politics of marketing the new health pyramid

When a Food Marketer Helps Devise Nutrition Advice


Candy lovers from 200 countries voted on a new M&M's color in 2002.

Purple won, and hundreds of newspapers and television stations reported the news. Web sites buzzed. Jay Leno worked it into his monologue on "The Tonight Show."

The campaign, regarded as a masterwork of food marketing, was created by Porter Novelli, one of the world's largest and most successful public relations companies.

Now the company is selling a different kind of product. Within the month, the Agriculture Department is expected to present a new icon to help Americans interpret the recently released federal dietary guidelines. For the company's work in designing the icon (which may or may not retain the shape of the current food guide pyramid) and for related tasks, Porter Novelli will receive nearly $2.5 million.
At a time when the government is increasing its use of public relations techniques to promote its agenda, its hiring a company with a stable of food industry clients to sell the national nutrition plan has some public health advocates concerned.

Government nutrition guidelines and the icon that illustrates them are more than keys to healthy eating. They can be powerful marketing tools for the food industry; a favorable nod toward one food group or another can result in millions of dollars in sales, food manufacturers say. They also influence federal food programs costing $46 billion a year, including food stamps and meals for schoolchildren.

Several former or current Porter Novelli clients offered formal comment on the guidelines and the new icon at government hearings last year. The Campbell Soup Company suggested that processed foods be given better standing than in the current pyramid. The Dole Food Company said fruits and vegetables should have a starring role.

And as soon as the guidelines were released in January, Porter Novelli account executives used them as a hook to promote client products like California almonds.

The company's current and former clients also include McDonald's and the Snack Food Association. And while no one expects Porter Novelli to subvert the government's nutrition message by giving its own clients' products a bump, some nutritionists and public health advocates worry about subtle ways in how the message is shaped. The government's main tool for defining a healthful diet, they say, should be kept out of the hands of marketers with close ties to the industry.

"You have a company on one hand pushing McDonald's or almonds or whatever, and on the other providing objective advice on government nutrition programs," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that frequently criticizes food manufacturers. "It could lead Porter Novelli to just be positive in the presentation or to tone down criticisms. It's very subtle, and it may not be bad in a way: the almond might be a good nut. But it really does pose a conflict of interest."

Government health officials say hiring a company like Porter Novelli is a smart choice. Porter Novelli invented the pyramid graphic, which was released in 1992, and its experience with both food marketing and health-oriented social marketing campaigns just may be the right combination to persuade ever-fatter Americans to change how they eat.

"If this kind of marketing is what the consumers expect to see, if this is what they see everywhere else, we've got to have it," said Eric Hentges, director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion at the Agriculture Department.

A government-appointed board of scientists and doctors wrote the guidelines last year, reviewing medical studies and hearing testimony from virtually every major food processor and commodity group.

Many of those same groups then offered public comment in the next step of the dietary guidelines process, which was to determine whether to keep the pyramid configuration and how otherwise to shape the government's message.

Porter Novelli employees have worked closely with federal officials on both parts of the process. At the same time, they have worked with interests that have tried to influence it. The company's executives say a fire wall dividing the government effort from the corporate interests, and the various corporate interests from one another, is maintained by confidentiality agreements, strict separation of the teams working on various campaigns and a number of protocols and computer safeguards on the flow of information.

"Porter Novelli is totally open with our public health clients about our commercial work in health and in food," said Rob Gould, a senior partner and managing director of the Washington office. Besides, Mr. Gould said, the company's job in this case is only to sell what the government has decided to promote.

"It is not our role to determine the science or actual public health recommendations," he said. "What our public health clients are looking for us to do is translate those scientific recommendations in a way that consumers can understand and make use of in their lives."

Concerns over the food industry's influence on the process have arisen before. When Porter Novelli invented the first pyramid in the late 1980's, milk and meat producers complained that their products were placed in such a way that people might be discouraged from consuming them. Other groups complained, too, and the Agriculture Department delayed its release until 1992.

To a large extent, that earlier effort has not worked. Although more than 80 percent of Americans now recognize the pyramid, few use it. Since the early 1990's the number of states with serious obesity problems has risen to all 50 from just 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, federal officials in charge of creating dietary advice say they are ill equipped to dispense it without help from marketing professionals.

"Putting together the frameworks for what has to be good federal policy on diet and health is what we do," said Mr. Hentges of the Agriculture Department's guidelines project. "We do not have expertise in all the mechanical systems to run through and do focus groups or Web testing."

Mr. Hentges said the project's integrity had been protected by a cumbersome process requiring dozens of government employees to review all the dietary guidelines material, including a consumer guide, the new icon, pamphlets, CD-ROM's and Web-based educational material designed by Porter Novelli.

Missions that might be considered conflicting are not new for Porter Novelli. For example, it has worked for both the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and for Guinness stout and Johnnie Walker Scotch.

On the other hand, the goals of a commercial client and a public health client can blend in a way that benefits both. For example, both Dole and the National Cancer Institute pay Porter Novelli to create and market a campaign to get people to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Whatever the benefit of a particular food, though, that is just the kind of partnership that makes some public health advocates nervous.

"How much of a corporate message is behind the government's message?" said Harold M. Goldstein, executive director of the nonprofit California Center for Public Health Advocacy, which is fighting to get junk food out of schools.

Porter Novelli was founded in 1972 by William D. Novelli and Jack Porter, advertising men who worked together to get President Richard M. Nixon re-elected. From the start, mixing traditional marketing with government-financed social marketing was central to the firm's success, says Mr. Novelli, who left in 1990 and is now chief executive of AARP. The company has since become a subsidiary of the advertising and marketing giant Omnicom Group and has offices in 60 countries.

One of Porter Novelli's earliest clients was the Agriculture Department, and since 1997 the company has obtained $59 million worth of federal contracts.

"Sometimes you can marry those interests," Mr. Novelli said of the government-corporate mix. "It's about synergy. It benefits both clients. Consumers are not purists. They are not monolithic."

Comment: I would like to thank Leigh Steinberg for e-mailing me this article. It is a great follow up to yesterdays Blog. It shows how easily a conflict of interest can occur when a marketing company that represents food companies develops the guidelines for how we Americans should eat. The article states that "Although more than 80 percent of Americans now recognize the pyramid, few use it. Since the early 1990's the number of states with serious obesity problems has risen to all 50 from just 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention". I would like to state that quite the contrary, we have not only followed it we have embraced it, and that is why we have such an epidemic of obesity in America. You better be prepared to think on your own on this issue, and not let the government or a marketing company choose how you should eat, it could be detrimental to your health.


Christopher Wiechert's Healthblogger is for educational or informational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose or provide treatment for any condition. If you have any concerns about your own health, you should always consult with a healthcare professional.