Obesity. It’s a word that has gained prominence in the U.S. in the last several years, as concerns mount about the rising number of dangerously overweight Americans. According to the American Heart Association, of Americans age 20 and older, 149.3 million are overweight or obese, and among children 2–19, about one in three are overweight or obese.
Those are startling numbers, and on Thursday, May 31, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced an attempt to do something about the problem—proposing to ban sugar-filled, calorie-laden drinks of more than 16 ounces from thousands of restaurants, delis, movie theaters, food carts, sports venues and other businesses that serve food and drink. Understandably, Bloomberg has received much flak for the proposal, just as Americans were preparing for National Donut Day on June 1.
As the obesity problem intensifies, the race to put “healthy” products on shelves heats up. But companies—and consumers—beware: With more “healthy” products come questionable health claims. Take the case of POM Wonderful, the maker of a brand of pomegranate juice. On May 21, 2012, a judge issued a cease-and-desist order against POM Wonderful in making unsupported claims that its juice reduces the risks of heart disease, impotence and prostate cancer. The case had been going on for two years, ever since the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against POM Wonderful alleging that the company had engaged in false and misleading advertising.
POM Wonderful’s case illustrates a gray area in making health claims for products. The FTC rarely enforces its edict against health claims that are unsubstantiated, says Kevin Tuerff, principal and president of social marketing agency EnviroMedia. Thus, for the FTC to move against POM Wonderful, there had to be a compelling reason. In this case, it was because some POM ads claimed that its juice specifically reduce the risks of heart disease, impotence and prostate cancer. The FTC said those claims were unsubstantiated.
POM Wonderful says it was not fazed by the ruling, pointing out that just a small percentage of its advertising was affected. “POM’s messaging has always been about the brand’s inherent benefits, both from a general health perspective and from a lifestyle perspective,” Corey Martin, POM’s VP of corporate communications, tells PR News.
It’s cases like this that prompted Tuerff to create Leanwashingindex.com, a site that points out questionable health claims by manufacturers. Leanwashing, derived from the eco-equivalent term “greenwashing,” lets the public rate advertising of health-related products and services. Just as companies sometimes exaggerate green claims, the same thing is happening with health claims. “It’s an area that is not well regulated, and with the obesity crisis it’s a problem that needs to be taken to the public,” says Tuerff.
While there are some minefields to tiptoe through, most organizations (including those not in the food and beverage space) can benefit from addressing national health issues, says Louise Pollock, president of Pollock Communications, a New York City-based PR agency specializing in food and nutrition communications.
Pollock recommends researching the interests of your audience and shaping health-related outreach accordingly. “It could be about keeping in shape, time management or lifestyle tips,” says Pollock, who adds that it’s a good idea to pull an expert into the fold—i.e. a dietician or lifestyle coach. Then, your content can be distributed in the usual ways: press releases, advertising and via social platforms.
“The obesity epidemic presents an opportunity for all communicators to learn how to position their brands as a motivator of change,” says Pollock. For example, a technology company could create a health-related app that benefits current and potential customers. Here are some tips from Pollock on how PR pros can play a role in helping Americans face their weight reality and get results:
• Keep abreast of lifestyle trends/issues (like obesity) that your brand can capitalize on to make a difference in consumers’ lives.
• Be prepared to proactively respond to general changes in consumer behavior, wants and needs, to continue to build your brand and create a loyal consumer base.
• Take appropriate action to help make a difference.
• Identify influencers who resonate with your brand and who have the expertise to convey your key messages in a meaningful way to help motivate change.
POM FIGHTS BACK
Meanwhile, POM Wonderful has been on the offensive, breaking new advertising the same week as the legal decision was handed down. The campaign consisted of three full-page advertisements in newspapers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, as well as home-page takeovers of CNN, the Huffington Post and other sites. The ads sport the tagline: “FTC v. POM—You be the judge,” and includes passages from the ruling.
One quote in an ad from the ruling: “Competent and reliable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that the consumption of pomegranate juice and pomegranate extract supports prostate health, including by prolonging PSA doubling time in men with rising PSA after primary treatment for prostate cancer.”
But, as the New York Times pointed out in a May 25 article, the sentence after that contains a caveat: “However, the greater weight of the persuasive expert testimony shows that the evidence relied upon by the respondents”—POM Wonderful and its affiliate, Roll Global—“is not adequate to substantiate claims that POM products treat, prevent or reduce the risk of prostate cancer or that they are clinically proven to do so.”
Could POM have left well enough alone? “We have had a lot of positive consumer feedback,” says spokesman Martin. So we’ll let you—and consumers—be the judge. PRN
Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01