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Obesity in the UK, as in the US

October 17, 2007

A recently released government backed, large scale study of obesity in the UK has concluded that modern life is to blame; specifically the proliferation of ‘energy-dense, cheap foods, labour-saving devices, motorised transport and sedentary work.’ There is a call towards more government accountability in terms of tackling the issue directly and not just placing responsibility on the individual.

The top recommendations from this study as published on the BBC news website are the following:

  • Early life interventions
  • Targeting those at increased risk
  • Controlling high calorie foods
  • Making towns more physically demanding
  • Increasing employer responsibility

These are all valid elements of a necessary strategy for curbing obesity. However there is not one mention in any of the articles that I can find of the words marketing or advertising. This to me is further evidence of a denial and a cover up that extends to our entire civilization and its fundamental presuppositions. For example, few could deny that childhood obesity is the most urgent concern of the obesity issue. At the root of the causes of childhood obesity is the increase over the last 25 years of direct marketing towards children, a practice which is blatantly irresponsible and short-sighted. The primary goal of every fast food company is the same where children are concerned: to create consumers with life-long brand associations from birth. Children are exposed from a very early age to an elaborate campaign of manipulation to create happy, pleasant associations with products such as Coca Cola and MacDonalds Happy Meals – products that are not healthy for adults let alone children. To instill a powerful desire for these products in children is highly irresponsible and ultimately damaging.

How did we let this happen?

What mechanisms in lawful society have led to this being an acceptable practice? Once again this can be explained with the help of our old friend ‘the corporate mandate.’ All corporations are legally required to make profit their highest priority. Failure to do so is considered criminal. Every day teams of executives, marketing experts and focus groups are trying to find new ways to market their products in order to increase sales and thereby increase profits. At a certain point a critical mass is inevitably reached with regard to legal limitations and ethical implications of marketing practices. When the tried and true avenues of straightforward branding and advertising cease to yield increased profits year on year, corporations are forced to turn to new methods; ones that although technically legal are highly unethical. In more extreme cases corporations will turn to illegal practices provided the cost of potential litigation is small enough to keep the venture profitable. The flaw is clearly systemic. The law should simply not allow this situation to exist. Laws need to be passed that curb the marketing of fast food towards children and extend to the entire public sphere: television, radio, internet, billboards, buses, etc. That is the only way to counteract the legal mandate of the fast food corporation to its shareholders.

Of course, singling out the fast food industry would also be short-sighted; just as singling out smoking is today. Laws need to be passed that curb the power of large supermarket chains, car manufacturers, clothing companies, banks; in fact just about every business that has ever been incorporated. By law the corporation must always choose the more cost-effective route, be it legal or illegal. The law must make it more cost-effective to do the right thing than the wrong thing.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2008 2:02 am

    great stuff great site.

  2. November 8, 2007 3:11 pm

    Individual contributors on the Foresight report have very different views. The report is a consensus report for which read some of the contributors said “oh, sod it” and went on their own ways, their funding protected, their project credit intact.

    I just spent a good few years researching a multidisciplinary PhD with obesity as the case study and the Foresight report is just too disappointing to bother with..

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