If your job was to sell products rich in saturated fat, current nutrition guidelines and policies would be a real impediment. So what would you do?
In the 1980s, human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson became a media personality hosting a television series dealing with ‘Hypotheticals’. He would outline a hypothetical situation and then invite prominent citizens to play imagined roles of the key players addressing various aspects of the situation, thereby exposing the various interests at play.
Let’s play ‘Hypotheticals’. I’ll be the moderator. You can play the role of the food company Chief Executive, Public Relations Guru or Ethicist.
Moderator: Imagine you are a chief executive of a food company, with a big problem: your industry’s product is rich in saturated fat. Credible nutrition organisations worldwide recommend that people eat less saturated fat and choose unsaturated fat instead, which is really bad for business. What would you do?
Chief Executive: I’d put it on the agenda of the next meeting of my contemporaries representing the industry in all major markets around the world. I’d argue that it’s imperative that we undertake a long-term, global project to confront this issue once and for all.
Moderator: Hmmm, taking on credible health organisations – you’re a brave woman. How would you go about such a project?
Chief Executive: We would bring in our public relations company – it’s a global firm operating in all our key markets. Their ‘issues management’ team is first class.
Moderator: Would a public relations firm appreciate a challenge like this?
PR Guru: Oh yes. We dream about a brief like this – a global industry, with a major issue that is going to take 10-20 years to address. We’ll make millions.
Moderator: What strategy would you recommend? How could you confront the nutrition and health establishment?
PR Executive: We wouldn’t confront the nutrition establishment head on. Our strategy would be to by-pass them, taking our message directly to the general public, changing how consumers perceive a healthy diet. We call this process ‘perceptions management’ – we use it all the time. There would be several stages, each one shifting consumers’ perceptions in the ‘right’ direction.
Moderator: Would you enlist credible nutrition scientists to carry the message?
PR Guru: Good heavens no. No matter how well we train them up, nutrition scientists just can’t stay on message. There would always be the chance that they would blurt out something inappropriate about saturated fat being harmful. We need complete control of the message and that means complete control of the messenger.
We’ll start the ball rolling with a trusted health journalist. We’ll place a story in a serious newspaper, maybe the New York Times, aimed at shifting consumers’ focus away from their current concern about fat. This is a safe place to start as leading experts now say the low fat diet was a mistake anyway. But we don’t want the public to revert to ‘moderation’; the objective must be to replace concern about fat with concern about carbohydrates.
In Stage 2 we’ll ramp up the anti-carbohydrate message with a series of books whipping up public hysteria about sugar. We’ll tell them that it’s poison, worse than alcohol, and that it’s addictive, like cocaine. And that it’s making everybody fat. We’ll position sugar as a killer! We’ll get credible people to carry the message, like doctors, lawyers and economists.
Chief Executive: Ha! Anyone but a nutritionist!
PR Guru: The more we can ramp up the hype about sugar the less people will think about saturated fat. During this phase we will subtlety infer that it’s not saturated fat that increases heart disease risk; it’s sugar!
Stage 3 brings home the bacon. Amid the confusion we will turn conventional nutrition advice on its head. We’ll tell the general public that all these credible scientific types have got it wrong – saturated fat is actually really good for you. And we’ll tell them that the polyunsaturated fat these so-called experts all advocate is actually deadly – it gives people heart disease and cancer, and why not, it sends you blind! We’ll target seed oils. The new healthy diet mantra chanted across social media will be ‘No sugar! No seed oils!’
Chief Executive: Which is actually code for ‘eat fat, especially saturated fat!’ Brilliant! You’re hired!
Moderator: Have you considered the moral dimension of such a project?
PR Guru: Don’t be daft.
Chief Executive: Umm, sorry, could you repeat the question?
Ethicist: Although all companies have a responsibility to their shareholders, they also have social responsibilities and in this case that includes public health responsibilities. The proposed project … [I’ll let you fill in this bit].
Of course, this is all purely hypothetical. Nothing like this ever happens in real life.