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Just how healthy is our unswerving trust in brand names?

Kellogg's have shown there's a fine line between advertising and exploitation, says Rupert Cornwell
PARDON the pun, but Kellogg's is in hot water over its current advertising campaign, suggesting fat children who eats its cereals for breakfast can lose weight and avoid school bullies. The cornflake company stands accused of exploitation of misery for commercial gain: is there no limit to the cynical manipulations of today's corporate masters of the universe ?

Kellogg's' defence of its promotion was for its senior marketing manager to boast that "We are Britain's most trusted company. That's why we had the confidence to do this." But what else is to be expected? A collapse of public faith in old-fashioned "institutions" is a worldwide phenomenon. Here, a study last year by the Henley Centre found that trust in Parliament had dropped by four-fifths between 1983 and 1996, to just 10 per cent. Confidence in the civil service tumbled from 40 per cent to 14 per cent, in the legal system and the Church to just 28 per cent. Only the armed forces have resisted the trend - but they're a pretty extreme solution to stop your child getting picked upon at school.

In a sense of course, this massacre of sacred cows is utterly healthy, a breaking loose of the numbing, hypocritical tyranny of its past. But we humans must believe in something. And what doesn't let you down, what is within our control ? Not God, not the courts, not the men from the ministry or the local authority, not your MP - but those stores you visit every week, and the brands they stock, among which you, sovereign in this small area of life at least, can choose. And we ask little of them. Barring beetles in the Rice Krispies or mould on the chocolate bar, they have fulfilled their part of the bargain. Thus the new pillars of our insecure society: Kellogg's with a trust rating of 84 per cent, followed closely by Cadbury, Heinz, Nescafe and Rowntree. The places you buy them are equally esteemed: Boots and Marks & Spencer at 83 per cent, Sainsburys at 77 per cent, the Co-op at 57 per cent. The stores of course have long since offered their own brands. Some have moved much further: Sainsburys into garden equipment, DIY and banking, M&S into just about everything. Now, Kellogg's has merely indulged in a little lateral thinking. Ironically, that 24-carat image, the idyll of nature, breakfast, children and the family that decades of advertising have sealed into our subconscious, has made conventional brand-stretching tough for the company. So Kellogg's has sought to broaden the impact of its cereals themselves, not the range of products sold under its name. Is it wrong for a commercial company to use social issues like obesity and bullying to further its cause? Only, surely, if the claims it makes are false. For all the cautions of well- meaning sociologists that the ads will only make things worse for overweight children by attracting attention to them and - astoundingly - that no link exists between being fat and being bullied, it's hard to accuse Kellogg's of going too far.

Plainly, fat children can get bullied. Plainly, you're less likely to be bullied if you have a bowl of cornflakes, rather than a mountain of potato chips and doughnuts, for breakfast.

"Of course, a cereal breakfast like Kellogg's can't solve complex weight problems," the blurb runs, "but in its own small way, it can really help." Coy maybe, but hardly a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act.

And if we don't like it, then we have only ourselves, and the direction in which we have driven our society, to blame.

"This is an end product of the 1980s privatisations, the privatisation of risk," says Paul Edwards, Henley's chief executive. "The institutions and everyone else are pulling back from sensitive areas like this." So consumer brands, with their capital of trust, move in to fill the gap. We may object, but in society's moral vacuum it's inevitable. And who knows, it may lead to a Kellogg's foundation for the study and treatment of bullying.