Needed: A dose of truth in food advertising

Needed: A dose of truth in food advertising

The Maggi controversy has brought into focus importance of food safety and pitfalls of celebrity endorsement of unhealthy food products. The instant noodle product which has triggered nationwide storm over its harmful contents as well as violation of labeling norms is currently endorsed by Madhuri Dixit. Television commercials of the brand previously featured Amitabh Bachchan and Priety Zinta. Though the regulatory action against Maggi does not cover endorsements, complaints have been filed independently against the three film stars for appearing in Maggi ads which proclaimed the product to be containing healthy ingredients.

Clearly, Maggi is just tip of the iceberg of a larger problem. The issue of misleading claims made by food companies, unbridled use of celebrity power to promote unhealthy food products and targeting of children in all junk food advertising, is as serious as food safety itself. Using a pretty face to launch or market a product is as old as advertising, but hiring film celebrities to endorse food products is a relatively new phenomenon. It is more a result of growing pressure from health lobbies and agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) to curb marketing of junk or unhealthy food – rich in salt, sugar and fats – aimed at children.

Big Food – as multinational food companies such as Nestle, Coca Cola, Pepsi, GSK etc. are collectively referred to – is increasingly coming under greater public scrutiny, just like global alcohol and tobacco industries. The demand to restrict marketing and availability of junk food is growing. Regulatory action such as restricting junk food in schools has begun in India and elsewhere. In order to prevent stricter regulation, Big Food wants to position itself as ‘healthy’ and ‘nutritious’ by adding micro quantities of some popular nutrients like iron and calcium in food products.  As a result, every major processed food brand today comes with a ‘healthy’ tag and a celebrity endorser. Maggi typifies this trend. By depicting Madhuri Dixit - supposedly a fitness icon despite her growing years - exercising and then devouring a bowl of noodles with young kids , Nestle wanted to position its product as a healthy snack for fitness conscious mother and her kids while masking the fact that it is actually high on potentially harmful ingredients. So-called healthy products generally tend to oversupply saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium – which are associated with a range of non-communicable diseases, and undersupply nutrients like fiber and vitamins that help protect against illness.

Most processed food products like potato chips, colas, biscuits, jams, chocolates, past and noodles are being targeted at children, and their advertising prominently features kids. For food giants, ‘catch them young’ mantra is critical because they know that food tastes and habits developed during childhood are difficult to mend later on in life. This was amply demonstrated by young TV anchors and reporters in their 20s who literally swore by Maggi while reporting about food recall controversy.

Kids also have the ‘pester power’ through which they can influence purchasing decisions of parents. In 2006, a WHO panel had concluded that exposure to advertising of energy- dense and nutrient- poor foods items can adversely hit children’s eating habits. TV commercials not just promote junk food, but deliberately undermine healthy diets. A number of commercials show kids rejecting home-cooked fresh food for ready-to-eat or pre-cooked food stuff. Food marketing also influences nutrition knowledge and food preferences of children.

At present, India has no regulation whatsoever on food advertising targeted at children. A few years food companies got together and adopted a self-regulation code which is actually a crude joke on consumers. The only recourse available to consumers against offensive food advertising is the Advertising Standards Council of India which has developed voluntary guidelines on food and beverages advertising.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is yet to formulate regulations on food advertising and celebrity endorsement, though the food safety law has specific provisions on false and misleading claims about quality of food. There are no guidelines that cover product placements in movies, television shows, social media, event sponsorship, in-school marketing and so on.

Celebrities are not legally barred from endorsing or advertising any brand they like or for which they have been paid for– be it potato chips, cola or noodles – but they are expected to weigh in pros and cons of doing so especially when advertising is aimed at impressionable minds.  The Federal Trade Commission in America has elaborate regulation on endorsement of products in all forms of media including social media. Under these rules, both advertisers and endorsers are liable for false or unsubstantiated claims made in an endorsement – or for failure to disclose material connections between the advertiser and endorsers.  This means if Madhuri was to appear in Maggi commercials in America, the ad would have carried a disclaimer that she is a paid endorser. We need similar regulation in India. It will at least bring some truth in food advertising. Hopefully.

-The writer is author of “Know Your Heart: The Hidden Links Between Your Body and the Politics of  the State” , and Fellow, Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi.

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