Exposing The Food Industry’s Marketing Tactics

By Mark Scherzer

The food indstry spends billions of dollars marketing unhealthy products to consumers, and a lot of those dollars are used to target children. It’s an issue we examine with students in our PowerUp! nutrition education program. There are many people who fight the good fight to change public health policy, and Michele Simon is a leader in the field. A public health attorney who specializes in food industry marketing and lobbying tactics, Michele has been researching and writing about the food industry and food politics since 1996. We talked to her about her work in countering corporate tactics that harm the public health.


IW:  Thank you for talking with us. Can you explain what a public health attorney does?

MS:  Sure.  Most people think of lawyers as people who sue each other. I’m a lawyer who advances public policy that promotes good health. There are all kinds of ways that we decide on certain policies that shape our food environment, like marketing laws for instance.  Public health lawyers are assigned to reshape policy in a way to help improve public health and make healthy choices more assessable and easier for people. It’s about putting health at the center of attention when it comes to public policies.


IW:  Who are some of your clients?

MS: Mostly I work for non-profits like Corporate Accountability International and Food Democracy Now! and others that are fighting to change laws.  I also occasionally advise law firms in lawsuits that hold the food industry accountable in that way.


IW:  Can you give an example of some of the work you’ve done?

MS:  Well last year, for example, I put out a report about McDonalds charitable giving in collaboration with Corporate Accountability International.  We teamed up to take a close look at how McDonalds exploits philanthropy for marketing purposes, so it’s that kind of deep research and writing that I do to try and expose many of the industry’s tactics.  For Corporate Accountability International, they have an ongoing campaign against McDonalds to try and get the company to stop exploiting young children with their mascot Ronald McDonald.


IW:  Using well-known characters to promote unhealthy food is one way to hook kids.  We cover this topic in ourPowerUp! program in the lesson about food marketing.  What are some other tactics corporations use to promote unhealthy food?

MS:  Well, the name of the game with any type of promotion is to use emotional triggers, for you to have a positive association with the brand, and there are all sorts of ways to do that.  They use these very sophisticated emotional techniques that are extremely effective when it comes to children, because children haven’t yet developed the brain capacity and the defensive strategies that we have as adults against deceptive marketing.  So that’s why you see, for example, the use of licensed cartoon characters on a box of cereal, which is a very deliberate strategy to get young children to nag their parents for that cereal not because of the contents, but if there is a toy or beloved character, then that’s what the child is attracted to.


IW:  Emotional triggers is a big one.  What are some others?

MS:  There are all kinds of pricing strategies and tricks that the food industry uses, whether it’s a value meal to get you to combine a burger, fries and a drink, all sorts of ways that at the point of purchase, marketers nudge you.  Like at the movie theatre, just spend a few cents more and get a thousand more calories in that tub of popcorn or in that big gulp soft drink.  So there are all different types of tricks of the trade that the industry uses to get you to eat more and more of the wrong kinds of foods.


IW:  The food industry is supposed to self-regulate when it comes to marketing to kids, but their actions have fallen short.  What do you say about that?

MS:  The industry charade to say that we don’t need government regulation, we have it covered — that’s a failed system and so we have to accept that it doesn’t work and instead we need government to step in and protect children.  We seem to accept the role of government when it comes to other ways to protect children, such as speed bumps, child labor laws, pornography laws, yet for some reason when it comes to the exploitation of children with food choices, it’s all up to parents.


IW:  What can we, as concerned citizens, do to change this?

MS:  Education is an important component, and it’s great you’re doing that, though we know from decades of public health research and experience that education is only one part of the picture.  What’s most effective is public policy change and that means changing the environment that people live in so that healthy choices are more available instead of what’s happening now.


IW:  What do you think the future holds?  Do you see things improving?

MS:  I would say we’re kind of on parallel tracks.  I do think that there is hope and there are a lot of people who are waking up to this problem of processed food and the food industry fooling people into thinking their products are healthy.  There are many people who are changing and making real food for their children.  But unfortunately, those are mostly the class of people who have time and money, who can shop at Whole Foods or are lucky enough to live near a farmers market.  For the majority of Americans, that is simply not the case.  It really does require a much more coordinated effort and holistic approach.


IW:  So there’s still more work to be done.

MS:  Yes.


IW:  Thanks, Michele.  We really appreciate your time.

MS:  My pleasure.


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