Use of ad firm to push U.S. health guidelines is met with skepticism

Advocates say agency's other clients could pose a conflict of interest


Candy lovers from 200 countries voted on a new M&Ms color in 2002.

Purple won, and hundreds of newspapers and television stations reported the news. Web sites buzzed. Jay Leno worked it into his monologue on The Tonight Show.

The campaign, regarded as a masterwork of food marketing, was created by Porter Novelli, one of the world's largest and most successful public relations companies.

Now the company is selling a different kind of product. Within the month, the Agriculture Department is expected to present a new icon to help Americans interpret the recently released federal dietary guidelines. For the company's work in designing the icon (which may or may not retain the shape of the current food guide pyramid) and for related tasks, Porter Novelli will receive nearly $2.5 million.

While the government is increasing its use of public relations techniques to promote its agenda, its hiring a company with a stable of food industry clients to sell the national nutrition plan has some public health advocates concerned.

Government nutrition guidelines and the icon that illustrates them are more than keys to healthy eating. They can be powerful marketing tools for the food industry; a favorable nod toward a food group can result in millions of dollars in sales, food manufacturers say. They also influence federal food programs costing $46 billion a year, including food stamps and meals for schoolchildren.

Several former or current Porter Novelli clients offered formal comment on the guidelines and the new icon at government hearings last year. The Campbell Soup Co. suggested that processed foods be given better standing than in the current pyramid. The Dole Food Co. said fruits and vegetables should have a starring role.

And as soon as the guidelines were released in January, Porter Novelli used them as a hook to promote client products such as California almonds.

The company's current and former clients also include McDonald's and the Snack Food Association. And while no one expects Porter Novelli to subvert the government's nutrition message by giving its own clients' products a bump, some nutritionists and public health advocates worry about subtle ways in how the message is shaped. The government's main tool for defining a healthful diet, they say, should be kept out of the hands of marketers with close ties to the industry.

"You have a company on one hand pushing McDonald's or almonds or whatever, and on the other providing objective advice on government nutrition programs," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that frequently criticizes food manufacturers. "It could lead Porter Novelli to just be positive in the presentation or to tone down criticisms. It's very subtle, and it may not be bad in a way: The almond might be a good nut. But it really does pose a conflict of interest."

Government health officials say hiring a company like Porter Novelli is a smart choice. Porter Novelli invented the pyramid graphic, which was released in 1992, and its experience with both food marketing and health-oriented social marketing campaigns just may be the right combination to persuade ever-fatter Americans to change how they eat.

"If this kind of marketing is what the consumers expect to see, if this is what they see everywhere else, we've got to have it," said Eric Hentges, director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion at the Agriculture Department.

Missions that might be considered conflicting are not new for Porter Novelli. For example, it has worked for both the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and for Johnnie Walker scotch.

On the other hand, the goals of a commercial client and a public health client can blend in a way that benefits both. For example, both Dole and the National Cancer Institute pay Porter Novelli to create and market a campaign to get people to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Whatever the benefit of a particular food, though, that is just the kind of partnership that makes some public health advocates nervous.

"How much of a corporate message is behind the government's message?" said Harold M. Goldstein, executive director of the nonprofit California Center for Public Health Advocacy, which is fighting to get junk food out of schools.

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