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Junk-Food Boycott Could Make a Big, Fat Difference

February 15, 2004|Greg Critser | Greg Critser is the author of "Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World" (Houghton Mifflin), recently published in paperback.

In the great culture wars over obesity and the overweight, nothing rankles public health combatants, both liberal and conservative, more than talk of how to actually solve the problem now affecting nearly two-thirds of the population.

On the one hand stand big business and its bought-and-paid-for think tanks, which have sought to paint the issue purely as one of personal responsibility: Stop eating and start exercising and the problem will resolve itself. On the other is what might be called the liberal professoriate -- essentially the nutritional establishment -- which sees the solution as one of regulation and taxation.

Yet both approaches are doomed to failure, particularly when it comes to long-term change. The personal responsibility approach willfully overlooks the fact that the poor and the young do not command the economic resources needed to eat healthfully and exercise safely. As to the liberal solutions, taxes on junk food are essentially taxes on the poor, and the regulatory approach refuses to accept the deeply entrenched protections of commercial speech embedded in the nation's law books. A Big Mac, unlike a cancer-causing cigarette, simply does not rise to the standard needed to breach those protections.

Moreover, in the information economy of the 21st century, regulation of advertising is almost impossible. Push it down one place and it will squirt out elsewhere. Consider the latest trend in food marketing, invented and practiced by Procter & Gamble, one of the largest and most powerful food companies in the world. In a largely hush-hush marketing program known as Tremor, P&G has used the Internet to recruit more than 280,000 children to promote its products on public and private campuses. In return, the kids get free products -- Pringles, etc. -- and the status of being told, by P&G marketers, that their ideas are cool. In one case, P&G recruits were asked to help out on new packaging ideas for high-sugar soda. Isn't that neat? (For the record, P&G is hardly alone in the conscience-free zone; in 2000, Coca-Cola offered payments to Richmond, Va., Boys & Girls Clubs for buying value meals at Burger King, in an attempt to drive up the company's sale numbers and induce Burger King to buy more Coke.)

The point isn't that things like bans on selling soda and soda ads in schools won't work; such moves certainly help change the immediate "obesogenic" environment. But they do nothing to change the basic drive of the modern food corporation, the core of the cancer. Until food companies feel a real and prolonged heat in the form of shame and decreased sales, the Tremor mentality -- sneaky, tittering and callow -- will continue. And so will rampant obesity.

One way to turn up the heat is through a parent-led boycott. Some of this is already happening via soda bans by a number of the nation's larger school districts, including Los Angeles Unified. But that is just the beginning. To really get Big Food's attention, parents must take the next step, by systematically boycotting bad foods and bad food-company behavior. Here's how: First, fight fire with fire. Use the Internet. Go to P&G's website -- www.pg.com -- and download a list of the company's products. Take it with you when you shop for food and use it as a negative buying guide. Start with Pringles. You don't need them anyway.

Next, leave the list with the store manager with a short note explaining your concerns and asking him or her to pass along the note to the local food company representative. Last, write to the president of the company, spelling out your concerns about the products and the company's behavior. Make it clear: Stay away from my child or pay the price. Ask the CEO another question while you are at it: Are there any adults who work in your marketing department?

Don't think it will work? Consider this. In early 1973, food price inflation was at an all-time high, and anger about it had turned into a full-blown middle-class protest. Across the country, consumer groups consisting of self-described activist homemakers organized a widespread meat boycott, replete with big-city marches and signs that read, "Help Us Help You! Don't Eat Meat!" The movement even had its own graphics -- a big T-bone with "Boycott Meat" emblazoned across it in giant red letters. In San Francisco, the Consumer Action Group called for a 15% price rollback on all meats. In Houston, Housewives for Collective Action led their families in loud demonstrations at supermarkets. In the end, President Nixon capped meat prices.

But the meat boycott had an unintentional consequence as well: It was that campaign that eventually fueled the cheap-food movement that has wrought so many of today's food woes.

Parents now have a chance to fuel a new healthful-food movement that will force Big Food and its government sponsors to get it right.

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