Monday, April 12, 2010

Little Steps to a Big Blunder

By Jennifer O’Connell

There are some meetings at which you would give anything to be a fly on the wall.

There’s the one which took place in Leinster House late on a Monday night in September 2008,when the Minister for Finance agreed to include Anglo Irish Bank in the guarantee being issued to the banks. (Not to mention the one the following January when he decided to nationalise it.)

There’s the one at which the Green Party leaders justified to the members the decision go into power with the party which John Gormley had once accused of being in the ‘‘top five most corrupt in the world’’.

Then there’s the one at the ad agency where they dreamed up the latest series of the anti-obesity campaign,, on behalf of Safefood and the Health Service Executive (HSE).

There must have been a brief of some sort and, if it said something like ‘‘warn working class people that their kids are too fat’’ or ‘‘write an ad that will appeal to the mothers of fat, pizza-and-chips-loving, working class kids with criminal inclinations, alerting them to the fantastic range of healthier meal ideas available at’’, then they have fulfilled it admirably.

If, on the other hand, they were supposed to come up with something less breathtakingly offensive, less reliant on lazy stereotyping and not featuring unconvincing inner city Dublin accents, then they might want to go back to the flipchart.

The ad, in case, you haven’t heard it, features a woman called Alison and her sister (or sister-in-law).The sister character starts by telling Alison there’s something she wants to ask about the kids.

‘‘They didn’t do it - they were with me all day," Alison snaps.

‘‘I’m no’ sayin’ anything - I’m their auntie. It’s just, they’re lookin’ grea’ - what have you been up to?"

‘‘I started cookin’," Alison reveals eagerly. ‘‘Instead of pizza or chips, I do a stir-fry or a pasta. There’s a website called,with loads of cookin’ tips - the kids are way healthier and happier."

‘‘You must be so relieved."

‘‘I am, yeah - the little one was getting too heavy." And on it goes.

Good radio advertising - the kind that stops you in your tracks - is pretty unusual. Bad radio advertising is much more common; in fact, most of what goes out in the intervals between the music and chat simply washes over you, lost in the cacophony of other sounds competing for your attention as you listen to the radio.

So it’s quite an achievement to make something so bad, so cringe worthily awful and so horribly patronising that it does actually stop you in your tracks.

It’s even more of an achievement when you consider that this ad was commissioned and presumably approved by not one, but two generously funded state bodies, the HSE and Safefood, a cross-border quango set up in the wake of the Belfast Agreement in 1999.

The HSE and Safefood are the, er, brains behind the Little Steps initiative.

Like many offensive stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth and good intention buried in the Little Steps ad.

Our children are fast becoming the most obese in Europe. In Ireland, as is the case everywhere in the developed world, children from lower-income households are typically at greater risk. This, presumably, is the rationale behind the two new radio ads and may also account for some of the more patronising content of the Little Steps website.

I don’t suppose the website creators really believe there is, for instance, anyone out there who actually needs a recipe for ‘peanut butter on toast’ or ‘chopped banana on breakfast cereal’.

Rather the idea is to show that ‘healthy’ doesn’t always have to mean expensive organic lentil patties.

To be fair, it is difficult to tackle this problem at a national level without appearing to patronise parents. The British government now writes to the parents of children in primary schools to inform them that their little darlings are, to put it more bluntly than they do, fat - an initiative which has gone down like a dropped 99 on a hot summer’s day.

In the US, Michelle Obama took a more enlightened - but still controversial - approach when she revealed that her own daughter had struggled with her weight.

Though she has been criticised for exploiting Malia’s private health issues to make a political point (in this column as in many other places) Obama’s decision to bring her daughter into the debate hints at something that the crass Little Steps campaign overlooks.

Worrying about offending particular social or cultural groups is a luxury we can no longer afford. But to treat obesity as a social phenomenon restricted to those from low-income backgrounds is a stupid - and dangerous - mistake.

Recent research shows that 27 per cent of children are overweight or obese by the time they enter senior infants - that’s almost one in every three girls and one in four boys.

That’s your kids and mine. They may never have set foot in McDonald’s, and might opt for apple juice instead of Coca-Cola at mealtimes, but that doesn’t mean they’re not at risk. Elements of the British government’s anti-obesity drive are drastic and unpopular - but at this point, creative and thoughtful may no longer be enough.

There, the government’s figures show that nine out of ten adults and two-thirds of children will be overweight or obese by 2050.

But action is being taken: councils are banning takeaways from opening within 400 yards of schools, school lunches are becoming more nutritious, free swimming classes are being offered to children and PE time has been extended.

When Change4Life, the anti-obesity body, wanted to come up with a new ad campaign, it drafted in the creators of Wallace and Gromit. Enough said.

Though still a slightly scattergun approach, early results from some of these initiatives suggest that childhood obesity, at least, is levelling off. 

By comparison, our attempts to tackle the problem look about as dynamic and creative as an empty Burger King wrapper.

This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on April 12 2010