How one veteran junk food marketer is recasting ad land’s role in the obesity crisis

Parker believes the healthiest food groups are disadvantaged by a lack of a brand manager

After decades promoting high-sugar, salt and fat foods, marketer Dan Parker is urging the industry to own up to its role in the rise of diseases such as obesity and diabetes – and asking them to donate their talents to promote nutritional remedies.

Parker, who co-founded mobile marketing agency Sponge in 2001, is now channeling his efforts into Living Loud, a ‘charitable coalition’ comprising professionals from health, nutrition, digital, PR and advertising. Its goal is to bring together these disparate skill sets to create and advise on campaigns that promote healthier living, combating the root cause of non-communicable diseases plaguing the west.

The not for profit’s launch is certainly timely. Earlier this week Cancer Research UK implored Ofcom to toughen regulations surrounding the broadcast of ads for high fat, sugar and salt brands, while across the Atlantic the American Journal of Public Health confirmed a federal tax on such foods would be ‘feasible’. Change is also brewing in the nutritional strategy of government, and the rise of veganism and the #EatClean movement shows the same can be said for certain pockets of individual consumers.

Parker and his team of doctors and ad execs have previously worked on healthy eating projects with the likes of the Centre for Social Justice and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The Jamie Oliver Foundation is also a close ally and partner; Living Loud built the digital platform and strategy for its widely lauded Sugar Smart campaign.

Next on the cards is an obesity reduction project with a London borough. In this instance, Living Loud aims to create an empowering communications plan for parents, schools and the local authority who are caring for overweight children.

For Parker, the project highlights exactly how the organisation can work with external partners.

“At the moment … if primary school kids are deemed to be an unhealthy weight their parents get sent a letter from the council – a really dry letter – that says, ‘your child is overweight and needs to go to these classes’,” he explained.

“Unfortunately, the response to that letter is really very poor, because that’s not how you should communicate. If you want to take people through a changing experience you need to take them on a journey that supports them, that inspires them, that empowers them to do something about it. We know how to prevent, manage and – in many cases – put into remission diabetes, heart disease and many cancers. But as a society we’re completely failing to communicate that to people. And that’s just another marketing challenge.”

Parker readily admits to spending the majority of his working life tackling very different problems: Coca-Cola was his biggest client and he’s also worked with Cadbury, Walkers and McDonald’s.

His father had recently died from complications related to diabetes, a disease which he himself had recently been diagnosed with. He was in his mid-40s, overweight with a poor diet, and – like so many marketers – overworked. And then he had an epiphany while running along Brighton beach.

"I realised the primary cause of so much suffering, so much death and so much cost is what people choose to put in their mouth,” he said. “No-one knows more about why people put into their mouth what they do than these people who sit around the table at Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.

"I thought, ‘Okay I’m not entirely sure I want to spend my life encouraging more people to drink more fizzy drinks and eat more burgers,’ but actually the 20 years I’ve spent doing this means could make a significant contribution using technology and creative communication to persuade people to eat certain things.”

There's no arguing the fact that some brands are simply more attractive to marketers than others. Pepsico and McDonald's are among the world's biggest ad spenders and as a result attract the top talent. Add to this the power of an ambitious brand manager, which Parker believes is underrated, and thus the healthiest food groups are automatically at a disadvantage without the support of this crucial role.

“There’s no brand manager for veggies – frankly the growers can’t afford it and they don’t have a marketing culture,” he explained. “Veggies need [someone] to promote them to the public, encourage the supermarkets and the media to push them more, to be an evangelist and ambassador for vegetables in the same way that every decent brand has people in those roles.”

Brand managers are key to Living Loud in other ways too. Parker envisions collaborating with the likes of Nike to get people running, or Pedigree to encourage owners to get outside and play with their dogs. Parker’s adamant that the projects he works on are fully-functioning, credible campaigns with good at their heart, and not unfeasible CSR schemes dreamed up by agencies.

He’s also skeptical of the ‘healthy’ pushes from brands that have historically contributed to the rise in obesity, however applauds the likes of Ribena and Irn Bru for reformulating their products to contain less sugar. He believes that these companies are “taking a big risk with their company, their products and their profits” in order to “do the right thing”, whereas others treat their healthier alternatives as a variable sideshow to the main bulk of their junk food marketing.

Aside from relying on corporate responsibility and legislation such as the sugar tax, Parker thinks further regulation on marketing will make a difference too, particularly when it comes to children.

“We’ve got so many ways that people are marketing unhealthy foods to children that are perfectly legal,” he said. “We need to bring in some new regulations that not only protect our children from undue influence, but get rid of the grey area that allows everybody who is working in marketing to operate within a legal framework on the right side of society’s moral code.”

He added: “I know from speaking to lots of former colleagues that people [in the industry] are uncomfortable. “They know that the work they need to do to be competitive is not going to sit well with future generations.”

It’s these marketers – the ones experiencing growing discomfort with the products they’re told to advertise – that will be key to Living Loud’s success. Parker’s challenge will come in the form of getting creatives and execs to work on healthy living projects that are on the less glamorous spectrum of the industry – for a lot less money than they’re used to. But he’s confident there’s an appetite to give something back to instigate real societal change.

“There are some amazing ads, such as This Girl Can, that show incredible creative advertising can also be a force for good,” Parker said. “At the end of the day we’re the persuasion industry, and we probably like to think we can persuade people to do just about anything. We probably can if we try hard enough. It’s just a question of where we choose to use that power.”

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