Nice, but not good enough. That is the near-Pavlovian response professional activists routinely offer whenever their targets announce some voluntary action that, to the casual observer, seems to advance the activists’ agenda.
Consider, for instance, a September 23 Politico story, “Food, Beverage Firms to Dial Back Marketing to Kids.” The story reported on voluntary commitments International Food and Beverage Alliance member companies made to the World Health Organization regarding product marketing to children under 12. Those commitments include restrictions that nutrition activists have long sought from government regulators. Yet, there was the glass-half-empty response of Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) nutrition policy director, Margo Wootan:
If they’re saying they’re covering all media, they’re not. They’re missing on-package marketing [and] in-store and on-display marketing.
Ms. Wootan’s comments confirm a theory WLF has been arguing for the past several years in the context of plain packaging initiatives for tobacco: activists have their sights on more than one category of consumer products.
It is highly doubtful that food and beverage companies would voluntarily strip all branding and other “marketing”-oriented information from their products. Companies have billions of dollars invested in such trademark-protected brands (especially those built around characters like Tony the Tiger), which are an essential element in distinguishing their products on crowded shelves. Activists care little about trademark rights or brand equity, so when companies rightfully reject black-and-white calls for self-imposed blandness, CSPI and their brethren will demand new federal mandates micromanaging package design. No doubt, products with “too much” salt, sugar, caffeine, or fat will be singled out first initially.
Another example of unsatisfied activists arose in the Wall Street Journal‘s September 24 reporting on soda manufacturers’ pledge of a 20% calorie cut by 2025. The article gave CSPI the last word on soda firms’ pledge. The group found it to be “welcome news,” but (there’s that word again) they “said the goal could be achieved much faster with taxes on soda or warning labels.”
Finally, again from the Politico article, another of Ms. Wootan’s “nice, but ….” statements was unwittingly revealing:
Self-regulation has led to some decrease in unhealthy food marketing to kids. But still, the overwhelming majority of ads that kids see . . . are still unhealthy foods that most parents would like their kids to eat less of.
This statement perfectly encapsulates the paternalistic mindset that underlies the nutrition nanny movement. It insinuates that the sway of advertising somehow leaves parents incapable of making the right diet decisions for their children, and that government must silence the marketer. Nanny activists don’t trust that parents will say “no” if their kids demand certain products or that they will choose the right balance of nutrient-dense whole foods and less-nutritious snacks when grocery shopping for their families. And so the seek ever more government intervention.
The food and beverage industries and the consumers who enjoy their products must understand that for nutrition nannies, no voluntary action or government regulation will ever be enough. Pushing for more is, after all, what professional activists do for a living and how they raise money.
Much like Bugs Bunny did to Yosemite Sam in the classic Looney Tunes episode “Bugs Bunny Rides Again,” those activists will keep drawing, erasing, and redrawing their demand lines in the sand. And if you’re familiar with that Looney Tunes episode, you know how that ends up for Sam.
Also published by Forbes.com at WLF’s contributor site