The Obama Administration wants U.S. manufacturers to adopt stringent guidelines for marketing to children. To that end, the White House and Congress assigned a panel from the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Agriculture to compose the guidelines, which are the first of their kind.
The goal is to curb the nation's growing problem with childhood obesity.
Predictably, food manufacturers and retailers are lining up against the guidelines.
Their arguments include:
- Though the guidelines are voluntary, manufactures and retailers will come under intense public pressure to follow them; thus the new rules are nothing more than "backdoor regulations."
- Following the guidelines will hurt business.
- The guidelines violate the industry's right to free speech.
- Adopting the guidelines would have no effect on childhood obesity.
The food industry has in effect declared war on the guidelines without attempting diplomacy. An executive summed up the industry's attitude: "I can't imagine any mom in America who thinks stripping tigers and toucans off cereal boxes will do anything to reduce obesity."
So the battle lines have been drawn with the food industry on one side, and public interest groups joining with health experts on the other.
Given the track record of other industries in resisting similar guidelines -- Big Tobacco comes to mind -- it's hard to imagine how food executives envision a long-term victory here. The public tends to view regulators, health officials and public interest groups as credible, and Big Business as greedy and craven.
In short, their communication strategy is a loser.
But what if, instead of listening to the lawyers and immediately declaring war, food industry executives had analyzed the conflict from the perspective of outrage management?
Certainly outrage is at work here. First, children are generally considered defenseless; anything that threatens them is like to raise the public's ire. Second, the food industry is Big Business, and thus will be seen stereotypically as coercive, oppressive, impassive, unfair, immoral and untrustworthy. It doesn't help when industry reinforces those stereotypes by refusing to act as if diplomacy matters.
Instead of attempting to sway the general public with losing arguments like "It will hurt our business!" or "We have the right to free speech!" what if the industry had adopted a mutual gains approach? What if it had started off by:
- Acknowledging the validity of the other side's position: If you believe that marketing and advertising work, and that consuming foods that are heavy in fats and sugars can lead to obesity, then exactly how does one argue that there is no connection between the marketing of food and the effects of food. Instead of defending an indefensible position, the food industry would be better served to say, "Hey, you may have a point. Let's talk about it."
- Offering to collaborate with adversaries and third parties in finding and publishing the facts: Reports and statistics generated in-house persuade only the folks who are already in house.
- Accepting moral responsibility for any adverse effects that prepared or packaged food may have had on the rise of obesity among kids: This is not the same as accepting liability. It's a matter of saying, "We don't know that we played a role, but we feel a duty to do whatever we can to fix the problem." And then following through.
- Acting in a trustworthy fashion: One becomes trustworthy by acting openly and collaboratively toward a solution, not by shutting down the conversation before it begins
- Focusing on building long-term and relationships with regulators, health officials and public interest groups: The reasonable goal is not to put the food industry out of business. But it is to end the marketing of unhealthy food to children. Are food executives so unimaginative that they can't apply marketing and advertising to making healthy foods appeal to their customers, no matter what age? Can't a toucan sell a health cereal as readily as it can sell an unhealthy one?
No matter the outcome of the current confrontation, the end game is clear: The food industry will have to change significantly, just as the cigarette, auto and petroleum industries have had to embrace changes in the public interest.
Meanwhile, it's important for executives and investors to remember that companies never make money when they go to war. Only the lawyers make money.