How food companies are keeping unhealthy food in the spotlight during the pandemic

This simple advice on advertising was oozed by (entirely fictional and utterly callous) advertising legend, Don Draper in Mad Men. While he wasn’t specifically advising brands on how to respond to a public health pandemic, it seems many UK food companies have followed his advice when it comes to adjusting their marketing practices over the past few weeks…

Food advertising places certain products centre stage in our minds, influencing our appetites and brands’ demand. In the midst of the most serious health crisis in a century, marketeers have been quick to adapt their techniques to spotlight the options that are worst for our health and wellbeing.

It’s pretty obvious that talk of infectious diseases doesn’t sell junk food. So what are some of the tricks that advertisers have been using to change the conversation and make sure their unhealthy products are kept in the spotlight?

  1. Provide ‘helpful’ but heavily branded home activities and challenges for children

Confectionery brand ‘Skittles’ were quick off the mark here, using the hashtag ‘SkittlesArtChallenge’ to encourage people to create artwork using their sweets. They built on this with #SkittlesExperiments content showing how skittles could be used in science projects. Launching these at a time when many children are being home-schooled, along with the use of #family hashtag on Instagram makes it quite clear these activities are designed to ensure their products remain centre stage in children’s minds.

Other companies such as McDonalds and dessert café Creams have launched heavily branded home activity packs for children, while Milkybar and Smarties are promoting their #AwesomeThingsToDo activities, which can only be accessed by buying their products and scanning an on-pack QR code.

  1. Link their brands to work-from-home trends

Anyone looking for a junk-food themed Zoom background is spoilt for choice, with Krispy Kreme, KFC and Burger King just a few of the brands jostling to make sure their products are prominently displayed to your friends and colleagues.

Biscuit brand McVities are busy reminding us all to take a #biscuitbreak at 11am everyday as well as issuing baking challenges featuring their biscuits. While Chicago Town pizzas have tapped into the online quiz trend, offering free pizzas as a prize in their pizza themed (naturally) quiz.

  1. Encouraging ‘comfort’ eating

At a time when good physical health is more important than ever, it’s basically irresponsible for a company specialising in over-sized ice cream sundaes, milkshakes and waffles to tell us, “We deserve a sweet treat at this uncertain time” as Creams have done on their Instagram stories.

  1. Position themselves as ‘heroes’

The last few weeks have seen Domino’s Pizza (whose products tend to be high in calories, saturated fat and salt) advertising for delivery drivers, with the strapline, “Help feed your community,” while Creams refer to the drivers delivering their chocolate bar covered crepes with the line, “not all heroes wear capes.”

This is just a small sample of the techniques food companies have been using to keep their products in the limelight. Our friends over at Children’s Food Campaign have blogged about more examples here.

The coronavirus pandemic is having an impact on all aspects of our lives, not least what we are eating. Polling data shows we are snacking more, particularly on foods likely to be high in fat, sugar and salt like sweets, biscuits and crisps.

The evidence is clear that the food advertising drives demand for products. It’s a basic self-evident truth, marketers wouldn’t invest hundreds of thousands of pounds marketing their products if it didn’t lead to us buying (and eating) their products.

While the theory of advertising may not have moved on from Don Draper’s sixties heyday, the techniques have. And as these examples show, marketers are using a range of channels, messages and content to keep their unhealthy products remain centre stage in our minds regardless of an ongoing health crisis.