The Atlantic Online

How to Fight Obesity: Befriend the Bad Guys

Former Senior Fellow and Director, Food Policy Center

This is the final installment in our series about who could make the biggest impact in reversing America's bloated obesity rates. Using my solid-liquid-gas metaphor, we've seen how the "solid" grocers and restaurateurs, "gas-like" researchers and activists, and (mostly) undisciplined consumers cannot lead us out of the obesity morass. I concluded that a solution is more likely to emanate from the more "liquid" packaged foods marketers, companies like General Mills, Kraft, and, yes, even The Coca-Cola Company. But these companies end up behaving more like resistant-to-change solids due to their subservience to quarterly earnings pressures.

Why would they change?

I have highlighted how tactics that attack the very essence of a food marketer's business like soda taxes and fat bans elicit the exact opposite reaction than what was intended. Instead, it's time for a game-changer, a new paradigm that shifts the debate from penalizing industry to creating incentives for them to act in the public's best interest.

It's time to push them to be even better ... marketers.

Here are some suggestions:

First, attacking the name on the building is a non-starter. Like storming the Bastille, the change agent activists want to overthrow the entire system of processed foods. When one proposes to tax the name on the building (as in the case of soda taxes), it can be guaranteed that the recipient will not be cooperative. Frontal assaults on industry practices cause marketers to dig in and revert back to defending the status quo. Protecting against such attacks becomes a badge of honor. Like bees in a beehive, they will do anything to defend their brand queens.

Instead of this interminable war of attrition, a better approach would be to offer incentives. This doesn't mean giving food companies freebies, but rather restructuring policies so that industry's needs are brought into better alignment with solving the problem. This means rewarding them for doing the right thing, like aggressively lowering the calories they sell. So if a company reduces average calories per serving below a certain target, it gets a tax bonus. Companies that continue to spew excess calories get docked. Pretty simple; it's a win-win.

Second, stop treating advertising as a pariah. Efforts are underway to eliminate advertising to children or to chop out all tax deductions for "foods of poor nutritional content." With $15 billion in annual food advertising, why would we not want to put that money to good use? A better approach than killing off these expenditures is to tap into the marketing prowess of the food companies. So let them market, just steer them in the right direction.

Instead of cutting their budgets, we should be finding ways to piggy-back on ad spending to educate consumers about healthier eating. For instance, we can incentivize marketers to incorporate portion control and proper nutrition messages into their ads. And rather than forbidding advertising to children, let's reward marketers for incorporating healthy eating messages in ads for pre-approved products.

Third, show them why promoting health is better for their bottom lines. Prevailing arguments in favor of changing industry attitudes toward the obesity problem are based on a public-health perspective. For example, statistics fly around that obesity now costs over $150 billion each year, or that two-thirds of American adults are now obese. While factual, these stats have no meaning to corporations. This is not the language that they speak and it is a major reason why they don't understand how and why it is necessary to tackle this issue.

Climbing this Tower of Babel requires a new approach. We would be better served by demonstrating that, for example, profit margins are higher for companies like Danone or Nestlé that have shifted their marketing to healthier products. A key part of my activities over the next year is to pull together enough evidence and case histories to convince food marketers that it's "just good business" to aggressively lower the calories they sell. This will get their attention, not attacking their sacred brands.

None of these approaches suggests "selling out" to industry; it's simply good negotiation. Packaged foods marketers can fix what consumers, activists, and regulators have proven they cannot. They are liquid, and have demonstrated agility when it comes to responding to new information that better serves their bottom lines.

We are on the cusp of some breakthroughs in the war on obesity and must bring along the marketers. If we don't, we're in for an even longer haul.