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Jamie Oliver: Food and drink brands need annoying little shits like me to galvanise the industry into properly tackling childhood obesity

Food and drink makers are moving faster than ever to tackle childhood obesity but the gains are coming from a “terrible base” and advertising needs to do more to help turn the tide, warned celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

The warning was part of the Oliver's “get your shit together” plea to a packed room of media owners, agencies and advertisers at the Advertising Association’s (AA) Lead event this morning (28 January).

There’s a growing view among the likes of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Mars that they need to up their game when it comes to health education amid pressure from the government and consumers though Oliver wants companies to flex their marketing muscles more to lift awareness.

“[The industry] needs annoying little shits like me doing something to make stuff happen,” he said in reference to the work he’s done to try and galvanise companies – both big and small – into treating rising obesity rates among kids as more than just a CSR exercise.

“The question for someone like Mars is if you sell chocolate for a living then can you be a global inspiration for kids,” Oliver continued.

Reformulation, packaging updates and other initiatives are all well and good but without marketing and all the direct and indirect influences it has on kids their efforts won’t have the impact to drive meaningful change, he added in an exchange that became a push for “clients” to become part of the solution rather than the problem.

“If McDonald’s wanted to make salad cool they could. I couldn’t. The point is whether they want to make it cool, he said.

“I think clients need to be more experimental and look at what percentage of their output takes risks and aren’t based on shifting projects…. ultimately we have to get more of our kids growing, cooking and drinking more water. That’s the challenge,” Oliver added.

Despite his belief that advertisers have yet to show the teeth needed to slash obesity rates, he did take time to single out the efforts to date from McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Unilever to at least try in Europe. The challenge then is to foster a culture of collaboration, which the AA is trying to do in order to mitigate what chief executive Tim Lefroy called “clumsy regulation”.

“Collaboration across the industry is key,” opined Oliver. ”The disease between any product organisation is that they’re all doing similar things [to tackle obesity rates]. Is there something that these companies can do where they gather their brightest minds together….get a percentage of that from everyone where there’s a more holistic view that can be a bit more dynamic.”

Oliver’s plea for the industry to shed its self-serving nature comes ahead of the government’s much anticipated obesity strategy, which he has had a role in shaping. The plan has riled the ad industry over fears it will blunt brands’ ability to reach consumers with what they deem responsibility messaging via a self governed system. However, Oliver suggested that the changes may not be as drastic as many observers believe, acting as a “nudge” rather than a “slap” to challenge food and drink makers.

“I think the [obesity staretgy] will be good but not good enough,” Oliver teased. “It has to be holsitc and effect the whole environment.”

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