IF you’re peddling a seriously unhealthy product, what strategy might you adopt to boost sales?
One favourite corporate strategy has long been to seek to associate the harmful product with something healthy and wholesome.
Perhaps one of the finest examples was the long-running More Doctors Smoke Camels campaign in the 1940s.
The ads featured “doctors” straight from central casting, including personal moments and heart-warming patient encounters. You could almost be forgiven for thinking they were actually ads for the medical profession.
“The doctor is a scientist, a diplomat, and a friendly sympathetic human being all in one, no matter how long and hard his schedule”, reads one, next to a photograph of an affable middle-aged chap with cigarette in hand.
According to Stanford University, which has published a gallery of the ads, the claim that more doctors smoked Camels was based on the practice of distributing free samples at medical conferences and then asking the grateful doctors to nominate their favourite brand or say which cigarettes they had in their pocket.
Well, those were different times, you may say. After all, even medical journals such as the MJA accepted ads recommending beer and touting the throat-soothing benefits of cigarettes back then.
These days, big tobacco companies find themselves funding anti-smoking campaigns for young people in a desperate attempt to promote themselves as good corporate citizens and fend off further government regulation. A cynic might suggest these campaigns are designed not to work, but that’s another story.
The glorious tradition of the Camel ads is perhaps best expressed these days, not by tobacco companies, but by the fast-food industry, with its tireless efforts to associate its fat- and salt-laden products with healthy causes.
That’s one reason McDonald’s and other fast food chains have been so keen to establish a presence in or near children’s hospitals around the world.
These outlets are not just good sources of revenue — they allow the corporations to piggyback on the hospitals’ healthy and caring reputation.
One study, for example, found parents of children visiting a hospital with a McDonald’s outlet were more likely than those visiting a hospital without one to believe McDonald’s food was healthy.
Coca-Cola is one of the latest big corporates seeking to peddle its unhealthy wares by attaching its brand to a healthy message.
Its Coca-Cola Zero ParkLives program is providing free activities in parks across the UK, promising that going along to your local park “to join in the fun could take you one step closer to a happier, healthier lifestyle”.
Now, there is of course nothing wrong with kids playing badminton in their local park, but should naming rights for such a program be given to a multinational producer of tooth-decaying, obesity-promoting products?
Scottish GP Dr Margaret McCartney thinks not.
“Since when did public health policy on mass activity get placed in the lap of large soft drinks companies?” she asks in the BMJ. “Combined sales of the sugar free varieties of Coke don’t outpace the full sugar version, and total sales are worth £1bn a year in the UK alone”, she writes.
“The company clearly wants to associate itself with the antiobesity zeitgeist but if Coca-Cola wanted to do something more useful it could cut the amount of sugar in its products.”
Indeed. The bottom line is … that this is all about the bottom line. For Coca-Cola, the ParkLives scheme is simply another form of advertising, one that is designed to shift perceptions about it and its products.
To cash-strapped local councils — or hospitals — such deals may seem attractive, but the hidden costs, to both their reputations and to public health, may be bigger than they realise.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.