Scaring Us for Our Own Good

Discussion
Mar 06, 2008

By Bernice Hurst, Managing Director, Fine Food Network

Apparently impressed by the results of scaring us all with pictures showing the possibility of an unpleasant death due to smoking, the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) now wants to scare us to death about the horrific effects of enjoying food that we have been raised to believe results in strong bones and healthy bodies.

As reported in the Daily Telegraph, the FSA plans to persuade the public to reduce consumption of saturated fats by adhering to research that showed “shock tactics such as graphic images of furred blood vessels and fat deposits were the best way to change people’s diet.” A report presented by CMI Research claimed that “dramatizing the amount of saturated fat in foods in an unexpected and unappetizing way proved effective.”

With obesity and heart disease rates rising, the drive is aimed at reducing the consumption of saturated fats. The FSA denied it was considering putting warnings directly on packaging, and said it still had a wide range of consultations to make before deciding how best to convey its message.

One message being trialed points out that two slices of buttered toast contain more saturated fat than four doughnuts, and that one cheese sandwich contains more than half the daily amount of saturated fat.

Not surprisingly, dairy suppliers are less than pleased, responding that over-simplified messages might do more harm than good especially as calcium is an important part of a balanced diet. Even the National Obesity Forum’s spokesman urged caution. “Any warning would have to be carefully worded to make clear that dairy products are not unhealthy foods, they should be eaten in moderation as part of a healthy, balanced diet.”

Frequently overweight columnist and sometime chat show hostess, Vanessa Feltz, believes the exercise would be counter-productive. Summarizing her opinion in the Daily Express, she declared “Sticking a ‘FORBIDDEN’ label on foods will serve the same function as the locked sweets drawer or ‘Sundays only’ chocolates rule. It will make those foods trebly enticing.”


Discussion question: What do you think of the idea of using scare tactics in public service spots to frighten consumers away from using fatty or otherwise unhealthy foods?

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17 Comments on "Scaring Us for Our Own Good"


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Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
14 years 2 months ago

Relatively healthy people of all ages on both sides of the pond have been eating buttered toast and fresh dairy cheese for centuries. The obesity problem is alarming but very recent—-one needs only to look at family scrapbook pictures and school or club photo shots from as recently as the seventies to see that. Almost everyone was “normal sized” then. Perhaps it the combination of lack of exercise, chemical additives and preservatives in processed food, and high fructose corn syrup we should be scaring folks about!

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
14 years 2 months ago

I’m with those who see a gap between theory and reality on this: in practice, many–or most–“education” campaigns simplify issues to the point that they’re worthless…or worse. And of course with each taboo ended to an ever-growing list, the overall impact of scare tactics is likely diminished (why give up smoking when it’s no worse than toast?). Yes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: we ought to have a warning on that!

Rebecca Nyberg
Guest
Rebecca Nyberg
14 years 2 months ago

Why not a tax that is exponentially equitable? For instance, you could let all plain fruits and vegetables go tax-free, while lean meats and eggs and cholesterol-lowering margarines get a slight tax, with butter, cream, pork chops, and ice cream getting the highest tax rates. It may not totally prevent all overeating, but it should get people to think about their choices.

As a person who pays dearly to eat very healthy (vegetarian version of the Mediterranean Diet), I find it ridiculous that I have to pay so much for the fresh produce that keeps me from becoming a burden on the American Healthcare System, while the one-stressful-day-away-from-a-heart-attack 300-pounders shopping nearby are loading up on cheap fried chicken and brownies.

The U.S. is continually talking about nationalized healthcare, but before that could be financially feasible, perhaps the government needs to have some control on the consumption end.

Mike Blackburn
Guest
14 years 2 months ago

Seems like a very fine line and should be reserved for the most obvious cases.

Cigarettes are obvious–any amount of smoking is considered bad.

On the other hand, a person does need a certain amount of saturated fats in their diet. Not to mention the science on what exactly a healthy amount amounts to is questionable.

Maybe the question should be: “what role should the government have in influencing the diets of citizens?”

Obviously a healthy society = less costs to government and society in terms of managing health care. But do I really want my government making me feel guilty for two pieces of toast in the morning?

Seems like the powers that be should have other fish to fry (or steam).

Ben Ball
Guest
14 years 2 months ago

Maybe warnings are good but if so, then graphic warnings are even better. So let me suggest an alternative execution.

When tempted by something like, say…a chocolate eclair, my wife will pick up two, one in each hand. Then she finds a mirror (or looks at me) while holding them as though they are attached to her hips and says “I don’t think they look good there, do you?” Then about 95% of the time she puts them both down. Very graphic. Very effective.

Alison Chaltas
Guest
Alison Chaltas
14 years 2 months ago

Scare tactics can work and work well in direct to consumer communication. That said, Brits are used to much more aggressive messaging and can handle more than Americans.

Our experience is that the real challenge is translating this message in store.

Scare tactics can be thought-provoking in home and be alienating in store. We have yet to see scare tactics work in any shopper marketing effort–from tobacco to sun care to beer, wine, or spirits. The socially responsible messages of today’s beverage alcohol are a much better model.

Certainly there is opportunity to leverage the store as a pivotal medium in delivering the societal message to eat better and less and exercise more. Retailers and manufacturers that find the balance of how to do so will earn shopper loyalty and sales. Those that overdue the scare tactics (either on their own or through government and NGOs) will find shoppers avoiding their stores and aisles regardless.

Steve Weiss
Guest
Steve Weiss
14 years 2 months ago

Right on, Jerry! I’m certain that life on our planet would improve vastly if government bureaucrats were forced to wear identifying tags (aka: warning labels). Then we would know just who exactly is making the first dollar off of all this paranoia and pomposity. On the other hand, I can’t think of anything more likely to suppress my appetite than the righteousness of the control freaks.

Charlie Powell
Guest
Charlie Powell
14 years 2 months ago
Fundamentally, a single message has different impacts with different audiences, especially when it comes to communicating risk. Young people, for example, behave as if they are immortal and “scare” messages work poorly. To wit is the ineffectiveness of most anti-drug ads when examined retrospectively. At its most basic, much needed anti-obesity efforts are swimming upstream against eons of evolution where like all species we have evolved to seek the greatest number of calories for the possible lowest cost, physically and economically. Today, there has never been a time in history in which humans have had access to more calories and nutrients for a lower cost. An American supermarket is indeed the utopia of survival from an evolutionary standpoint. Abundant, low-cost, fats and carbohydrates, our two richest sources of calories, lead this nutritional revolution. Obesity and the diseases that result, as has been noted, is very complex. The fight is not really about obesity, it is about helping people learn and adopt self-discipline skills to modify eating habits in a calorie rich environment. No fat or… Read more »
Jerry Tutunjian
Guest
Jerry Tutunjian
14 years 2 months ago

Bathing on my virtual Ipanema Beach here in Rio de Janeiro…I encounter so few dos and don’ts in my life: Tops a mere 10 million maybe, I’d say. So you can see that I really needed another bureaucracy to tell me how to lead my life. Would they now enact a law that would decide how many seconds we should spend washing our hands? The Brits have a graphic word for it–“piss off,” but I don’t want to use it.

Max Goldberg
Guest
14 years 2 months ago

There are a number of ways to convey a message to consumers. Over the years, governments have tried many ways to get their populations to quit smoking, from education to graphic warnings. As governments tackle the problem of obesity, they will undoubtedly try many tactics. Graphic representations of the effects of a poor diet and lack of exercise may be one. We’re about to enter a period of trial and error, testing and retesting. No matter which ideas are tested, they are bound to step on some manufacturers’ toes. The fact remains that obesity is a problem that needs to be confronted and addressed.

Giacinta Shidler
Guest
Giacinta Shidler
14 years 2 months ago

Would it be effective? Quite possibly, if done right. (Personally I don’t find either of the two examples given very compelling.) But people do pay attention to messages like this. A significant portion of the population is always ready to jump onto the latest fad, be it low-fat, low-carb, sugar-free, etc.

Is it a good idea? No! It is too simplistic, and that’s the problem with most of the “fad” diets. It is simply not true that all a person needs to do is cut out a certain food group to lose weight. It’s not going to have an effect on obesity levels overall. I can see why the dairy groups would be upset.

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
14 years 2 months ago
Don’t run with a stick in your hand! Don’t buy him a BB gun! Don’t leave the yard! We are brought up with dire warnings. Most of these create more forbidden fruit than prevent injury. But we have been conditioned to listen. When I was in high school, the drivers education instructor routinely showed a movie called “Death on the Highway”. This movie was so graphic that it actually made people ill. We still had 4 people in my class killed in auto accidents. Smoking has been a known killer for over 50 years, but the number of people smoking is determined by fashion, not fact. Unfortunately there is no direct penalty other than taxes on smoking. Like obesity, it is a self inflicted wound. When we get serious and start denying people drivers licenses, health care, welfare and/or disability benefits for abusing themselves, nothing much will change. Is scaring people worth while? Why not? I can’t see how it will hurt anyone, but I don’t think the benefit will be worth the cost.
William Carlson
Guest
William Carlson
14 years 2 months ago
Many of us are eating poorly and gaining weight, so perhaps a message with some scare value will trigger us to think more about what we’re doing. We’re inundated with images on TV and in the movies that set the bar for “scary” pretty high — anyone seen the “Saw” movies (for which we PAID to be scared)? Not to suggest an escalation, but it takes more to get our attention these days, for something to stand out from the rest of the messaging we’re hit with. Considering it’s our lives we’re talking about — quality of life as well as longevity — I’m not opposed to being hit over the head from time to time. Though just like our food consumption should be “all things in moderation”, so too should the messaging. We need to re-learn for ourselves, and teach our children, the concept of self-discipline when it comes to food, but we will need some help. Information which helps us appreciate the choices we make and ultimately products and services that help us… Read more »
Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 2 months ago

What created the smoking decline? Was it scare tactics? Was it cigarette taxes? Was it ad restrictions? Or was it all 3? Maybe high fat foods and high sugar foods should be taxed like cigarettes. Maybe their advertising should be banned from TV, radio, billboards, and skywriting. Maybe the government should run “Fat folks die” ads, too. Of course, asking folks buying high fat and high sugar foods to produce ID showing they’re over 21 would reduce consumption. So would banning those foods from bars and restaurants, like cigarettes.

Liz Crawford
Guest
14 years 2 months ago

Don’t do this. Vilifying cheese because it might contribute to obesity is like outlawing steak knives because we might hurt ourselves. People have been eating butter and cheese for centuries. It’s not the cheese’s fault; it’s peoples’.

If money toward public education is available, let’s not generate another fad. Instead, let’s talk about nutrition and eating habits holistically.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
14 years 2 months ago

I think it boils down to economics (as do most things). What’s cheaper? Paying for obesity related health care or paying for an ad campaign that scares the daylights out of us for eating Oreos? I think the answer is pretty obvious. In Ontario, the government has been putting graphic messages on cigarette packs for decades and (along with huge tax increases) it seems to be working.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
14 years 2 months ago

I don’t have a problem with the tactic, but use it on the right foods. Maybe this is a UK vs. US thing. I was surprised by the toast example. My reaction was, you mean I could eat 4 donuts for the nutritional price of one piece of toast with butter? I don’t think that’s the reaction they intend.

If it were up to me, I’d go after fast food / processed foods, rather than something simple like a cheese sandwich. It’s the donuts that are killing waistlines, not the toast.

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