Monday, 30 November 2015

Shooting the sugar plum fairy. Why advertising isn't to blame.

The headlines from the report into childhood obesity published today will be all about taxing fizzy drinks. A pretty daft idea that targets just one source of sugar on the basis that in one place, Mexico, a 'soda tax' managed to reduce consumption by about 6%. There's no evidence that this tax reduced obesity, which was the main reason for introducing the tax in the first place.

Others will explain better than I can why all this is pretty daft. Not least because childhood obesity is falling in the UK - as the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) reported recently. More to the point, the problem with all this is that there's precious little evidence supporting a link between being overweight or mildly 'obese' and mortality:

There is now extensive and convincing evidence that the greatest life expectancy is experienced by those who are classified as “Overweight”. In addition, there is no reliable evidence that there is any reduced expectancy even in those who are mildly obese (5). It is true that those who are seriously obese do have an increased mortality but the picture changes when the effect of physical fitness is incorporated.

I suspect there's little or no chance of the current government introducing a tax on fizzy drinks - the prime minister has ruled it out more than once and the dissenters to the proposal from the health select committee report were both Conservatives - here's Andrew Percy:

Andrew Percy, the Tory MP for Brigg and Goole who sits on the health committee told the paper Oliver’s suggestion is “patronising nonsense”.

“This is a classic nanny state reaction and it won’t work.

“Slapping 10p or 20p on a can of sugary drink won’t make people change their behaviour.”

However the committee's report makes a whole load of other proposals that target advertising and marketing activity - that shoot the messenger.

Promotional and marketing techniques for specific products or brands have the aim of achieving one main goal—increases in sales. This is achieved through old (eg TV advertising, programme sponsorship, cinema, radio and billboards) and new methods (eg social media, advergames and internet pop-ups), which are designed to influence our food choices by, for example, overriding our established eating habits, and taking advantage of others such as our desire to reduce costs. The intent can be to encourage us to switch between brands or products; or there may be an additional consequence of getting us to buy and consume more.

Now this argument - from Public Health England and unsupported by evidence - flies in the face of everything that we know about advertising, choice and the way communications shape our preferences and decisions. Firstly, it just isn't true that advertising's purpose is to increase sales (I'm taking this to mean increasing the size of the market - to sell more sweets or fizzy drinks rather than more of the advertisers sweets or fizzy drinks). Here's the most well know study into the effects of advertising:

This paper is concerned with testing for causation, using the Granger definition, in a bivariate time-series context. It is argued that a sound and natural approach to such tests must rely primarily on the out-of-sample forecasting performance of models relating the original (non-prewhitened) series of interest. A specific technique of this sort is presented and employed to investigate the relation between aggregate advertising and aggregate consumption spending. The null hypothesis that advertising does not cause consumption cannot be rejected, but some evidence suggesting that consumption may cause advertising is presented.

In simple terms, advertising doesn't create new demand and there's some suggestion that the reverse is true. Indeed advertising effects on demand are persistently weak:

Advertising effects appear to be so weak as to give little, if any, support for the Galbraithian view that advertisers exert powerful, manipulative effects upon the allocation of consumers' expenditure between products.

As a marketing professional this is pretty depressing - we've all watched Mad Men and read Vince Packard's 'Hidden Persuaders' and kidded ourselves that advertising somehow created the consumerist world we live in. The prosaic truth is that, as we knew in our hearts (and those famed ad men of the '50s and '60s knew), advertising is a mirror held up to society and merely reflects the changes in our fads, fancies, preferences and choices. Don't get me wrong, advertising works but not in the way people who aren't marketers think it works.

And if you think about this for a second, it becomes clear. The advertiser has absolutely no interest in promoting his competitors' products, which is what he would be doing if what PHE says were true. And the effects - or objectives - are no different if it's cars, chicken or chocolate we're advertising. Or indeed if the audience is children or grown-ups (although there's some evidence showing children are more believing of ads this still only makes them choose one brand of breakfast cereal instead of another).

The most depressing part of all this - apart from the wholly unjustified attack on sugar as a macronutrient - is that the select committee conducted a review of and recommends regulations affecting advertising and marketing without taking evidence from any marketers. Yet again - as we saw with tobacco, with alcohol and with financial services - the messenger is machine-gunned by MPs who start off with no knowledge of marketing and finish with no knowledge of marketing.

In nearly every circumstance, brand advertising doesn't create new demand. Yet we see again the lie that banning or restricting its use will somehow reduce demand. This simply won't happen. The committee is just shooting the sugar plum fairy.


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