Serving Up Mixed Messages

Consumers are used to mixed messages about diet and health. Red wine can be good in moderation, or perhaps not. Dark chocolate is good for you, or perhaps not.

The confusion has gone into overdrive recently, with the report published by the National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration, calling for the public to eat fewer low fat foods and stop calorie counting, with a greater emphasis on whole foods and more healthy fats. Controversy about the report has raged, with criticism that it is not peer reviewed and lacks scientific evidence for its findings. Indeed, four members of the National Obesity Forum subsequently resigned, although the explanation given for the resignations was the way in which the report was published rather than due to its findings.

These are not the only mixed messages we have seen with regard to health and diet. There have been claims recently that being overweight is not as problematic as it used to be, potentially because medicine is getting better equipped at tackling the implications. Again, the report’s findings were criticised by other members of the medical community, leaving a legacy of confusion and uncertainty.

There is little consensus on many seemingly complex issues these days - food labelling, fracking, GMOs and so on. This is in part fuelled by the media for it is certainly the case that two polarised opinions make for much better TV than a more nuanced conversation.

But where does this leave the country’s obesity epidemic and our much maligned dietary guidelines? What do you do when you don’t have agreement on what the key messages should be? How can you engage your target audience when there seemingly isn’t a consensus?

The best thing to do is to ask your audience. Don’t assume you know best. Focus groups are a powerful tool with which to understand not the ‘what’ but the ‘why’ of an issue, particularly a complex one. Hearing directly from the public on complex issues can help all of us re-focus on what really matters. Consumer insights can cut right through the complexity and help us hone our messages.

When Bill Clinton was running for President in 1992, and his campaign team wanted to understand what people didn’t like about him, one respondent famously said, "If you asked his favorite color, he'd say, "Plaid.'" (Tartan to us Brits!) From an insight such as this we can immediately get a clearer picture of both the problem and the solution. In this case, the lack of clarity about what Clinton stood for could be identified, along with the need to promote Clinton’s personality and ensure it was clearer where he stood on critical issues.

The focus of those working in food manufacturing and public health should therefore be on three areas in particular:
• Get smart, fresh insights from qualitative research. Focus groups on issue relating to diet and public health are frequently run by food manufacturers, supermarkets, public health bodies and many others. However, the right questions need to be asked, the most relevant audiences need to be recruited and the answers need to be listened to and acted upon.
• Re-frame the problem. Consider engaging consumers in a positive, meaningful dialogue about their health rather than overtly trying to sell. Two great examples of positive campaigns that have changed behaviour are ‘This Girl Can’ from Sport England, and ‘Like a Girl’ from P&G’s Always brand. These campaigns show us that great insights can cut through complexity and controversy and inspire behaviour change.
• Consider the context. In the current media climate, it’s more important than ever to consider the context in which any communications campaign will be seen by consumers. Complex messages get simplified. Long explanations get cut short. Nuanced discussions become polarised extremes. In this landscape, communications need to be bold, clear and motivating if they are to have traction.

With obesity projected to affect 60% of adult men, 50% of adult women and 25% of children by 2050, clear messaging on this issue can’t wait.