Junk food ads: Selling guilty pleasures

Negative publicity and growing health awareness have given advertisers a major problem – how to sell confectionary and alcohol. By Esther Walker

Before we knew and cared that sugar and alcohol were bad for us, adverts for sugary and alcoholic things didn't need to do much more than show the product and print an instruction across the top.

An early advert for Cadbury's drinking chocolate, pictured a smart, late-Edwardian lady and gent, sitting in a parlour, drinking from cups and saucers. "Drink Cadbury's Cocoa" says the slogan. A 1952 advert for Guinness featured just a toucan balancing a pint of Guinness on its beak with the slogan, "Lovely day for a Guinness."

Tobacco companies didn't have such an easy time. The public knew, early on, that cigarettes might be bad for you and, therefore, posters advertising cigarettes had to work harder: they had to show the product, but they also had to soothe consumers' suspicions. The Old Gold brand of cigarettes increased sales with the slogan "Not a Cough in a Carload".

Later, when it would have been ludicrous to suggest there were health benefits to smoking, tobacco companies associated themselves with cool images, like the rugged Marlboro man, or avoided the embarrassing subject of cigarettes completely.

There has been a total ban on cigarette advertising since 2002, but other products now known to be bad for us (fast food and sugar) are starting to do just as the cigarette companies did. They counter negative publicity by either addressing consumers' fears, associating themselves with something cool or avoiding the awkward subject of their product altogether.

In the past, all McDonald's had to do was broadcast an advert featuring a tired businessman walking gratefully through the doors of a branch of McDonald's and sinking his teeth into a Big Mac. Post-McLibel, post-Supersize Me, post-Jamie's School Dinners, it's a different story.

In 2003, the company attempted to be cool-by-association by paying Justin Timberlake a reported $6m to sing the "I'm lovin' it" jingle and feature in TV adverts. Since then, the company has partly fallen back on a defensive position: the most recent McDonald's TV advert in the UK shows smiling children and their parents sowing seeds in a large garden in the countryside. At no point do we see a burger, a chicken nugget or a packet of fries.

Both KFC and the Pizza Hut focus on the feel-good association of family mealtimes: Pizza Hut's TV advertisements often show a family sharing food. Families are encouraged to "give mum the night off" and chow down on a bucket of fried chicken.

The 1980 advert for Cadbury's Caramel used a sexy rabbit to promote the chocolate. And the chocolate itself was an essential part of the advert. These days Cadbury's has chosen to ignore its product with the cryptic, advert for Dairy Milk, featuring a gorilla (pictured) playing the drum solo to "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins.

Galaxy modernised its image by sponsoring the Sex and the City movie. Playing on themes of naughtiness and instant gratification Mars, which owns Galaxy, seems to have reasoned that the sort of woman watching Sex and the City knows chocolate is bad for her – and doesn't care.

Coca-Cola has always pitched itself as a wholesome family drink. Who didn't want to teach the world to sing with all those rosy-cheeked beauties in the 1971 advert? The hippie vibe of that advert is back in fashion, although no confectionery or beverage would dare use the jingle "I'd like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company" these days.

It seems now that booze companies are the only ones left having any fun. Sex and the City and Friends have both been sponsored by drinks companies, Bailey's and Jacob's Creek respectively. Other alcohol brands, such as Heineken, Carling, WKD and Bacardi still sell consumers the idea that drinking is witty, groovy and cool – although now they must, by law, feature some wording about drinking or "enjoying" alcohol "responsibly". They are nowhere near the point at which they're too embarrassed to show their product, despite the slew of anti-booze publicity.

Junk food and alcohol companies could tell us the truth about their products, much like Dudley Moore's ad man in the film Crazy People. But while, in the film, these ads go down a treat, in real life, overtly plain-speaking adverts rarely catch on. "Coke: 10 spoonfuls of sugar in every can"; "Eat a McDonald's and feel bloated and sick and then hungry half an hour later!"; "Bacardi Breezer will help you kiss someone really really ugly." See?

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