Internet users can't avoid those obnoxious, animated ads showing a cartoon woman with a flabby belly that shrinks, and then gets flabby again, over and over. The ad urges people to click to get "1 weird old tip" to help lose weight. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says the ads are really a three-part scam: First, people click on the ads and get taken to websites with names like "ConsumerOnlineTips.com" or "WeeklyHealthNews.com," that appear to be about dieting or health news. Next, those sites show an attractive TV reporter discussing the benefits of incorporating specific products made from berries, fruits or hormones, into the diet. The sites carry positive information about the products, supposedly from credible news sources like CNN, USA Today or ABC, and include brief "reader comments" extolling the virtues of the product. Those sites link to another site where people can order a "trial sample" of the featured product. But people who order the free sample find out later that they have actually agreed to pay $79.99 for an additional shipment of the product two weeks later, and another $79.99 for a shipment six weeks later, and so on until they cancel -- which apparently isn't easy. According to the FTC, the sites are a scheme to grab consumers' credit card information and pile on additional, unapproved charges. The ads have led to thousands of complaints of unauthorized charges. The FTC has filed multiple lawsuits against the people and companies behind the ads.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is about to issue a new rule forcing movie theaters to disclose nutritional information for the prepared snacks they serve, including hot dogs, pretzels and popcorn, but the National Association of Theatre Owners is lobbying FDA and congressional staffers to exempt theaters from the requirement. Theaters argue the rule is an unwarranted intrusion into their business, since people come to movie theaters to see movies, not to eat food. "It's dinner and a movie, not dinner at a movie," says Gary Klein, general counsel for the theater owners' group. The stakes are high for theaters. Sales of popcorn, sodas and snacks generate up to one third of their revenue. David Ownby, the chief financial officer of Regal Entertainment Group, the country's largest theater chain, recently disclosed at an investor presentation that a bucket of popcorn costs theaters just 15 or 20 cents to make, and sells for about six dollars. The Center for Science in the Public Interest found a large dry popcorn purchased at Regal had 1,200 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat. Adding butter adds 260 more calories. The major theater chains already report nutritional information in California, where state law currently requires it, but theater owners are protesting being forced to disclose the information elsewhere, saying it should be voluntary, that people don't go to the movies that often and when they do go, they really don't care about the nutritional content of their snacks anyway.
A little-known bill making its way through Arizona's legislature would make it illegal for local governments to restrict the use of toy giveaways to promote fast-food, like McDonalds' Happy Meals. Fast-food companies are behind the measure, HB 2490, which was approved in Arizona's House Commerce Committee by a vote of 6-2. Now it is headed for a full vote in the House. The Arizona Restaurant Association, which lobbies for fast food interests, is backing the bill. San Francisco recently passed a measure restricing such toy giveaways, but the law doesn't ban "Happy Meals." Rather, it prevents restaurants from using toys to attract children to meals that have particularly low nutritional value and excessive amounts of fat or sugar. Arizona recently ranked among the top "10 States with the Deadliest Eating Habits", and the state has the second-fewest grocery stores per person, which results in more people buying fast food. As a result, Arizona ranks fourth in per capita expenditures on fast food. The effort by fast-food companies to pass the measure comes on the heels of studies that show fast food chains have been significantly [p://www.prwatch.org/node/9587 increasing] their marketing targeted at children in the last few years.
First, a weird photo of thick, pink, gooey sludge appeared on the Internet that was purported to be the raw material that chicken nuggets are made of. Then, in April, New York photographer Sally Davies purchased a Happy Meal, set the burger and fries on a plate in her apartment and photographed them every day for six months as an art project, only to discover that the Happy Meal looked exactly the same six months later -- no mold, no decomposition, nothing. Her "Happy Meal Project" started garnering attention from the media and time lapse video of it appeared on YouTube. The project led to speculation about the meal's composition, nutritional value and health effects, and put McDonalds in the unenviable position of arguing that its food can grow mold. Then in September, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine ran a gruesome anti-McDonalds "Morgue Ad" that advocated vegetarianism. Finally, in November the City of San Francisco effectively banned Happy Meals after it passed a law prohibiting restaurants from offering free toys with meals that contain excessive amounts of calories and fat. All in all, McDonalds took what some call its worst PR beating ever in 2010.
As state and local governments consider taxing soda and sugary drinks to raise money and address the national obesity epidemic, manufacturers of sugary drinks -- like countless other industries -- are taking PR cues from the tobacco industry to defeat the initiatives. The PR tactics they are using are starting to be old hat. By now, everyone should be able to spot them, but just in case you're not up to speed on your corporate PR literacy, here's what to look for:
Step One: Position your product as the solution, not the problem
Coca Cola, Pepsico and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group are running print and TV ads promoting their joint initiative to remove full-calorie, artificially-sweetened drinks from schools. At the same time, Americans Against Food Taxes, the front group for the sugary drink manufacturers, is sending out emails boasting that soda companies have replaced full-calorie soft drinks with "smaller-portion" and "portion-controlled" beverages, real juice and bottled water in schools. Voila'! Their products are no longer the problem, they are part of the solution. Even better, now they'll get kids to buy more bottled water -- which costs them next to nothing to make -- at a dollar a bottle. Score!
Nutrition experts are battling sugar industry trade groups over over public information about the health hazards of sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and other caloric sweeteners. Nutrition experts say that the sweeteners added to soft drinks and countless other foods and beverages increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, and promote weight gain by adding empty calories to the average diet.
The National Cancer Institute has awarded a five-year, $2.7 million grant to Northeastern University Law School to research how the tobacco, fast food and sweetened beverage industries use and exploit the concepts of "personal responsibility" and "choice" to avoid liability and litigation for diseases that result from use of their products.