Here I was thinking that the Kerry Armstrong episode was merely the bumbling of ham-fisted PR mongers. I imagined the poor Big Sugar flaks being soundly spanked for underestimating the intelligence of the buying public.

Alas it appears it was I who misunderstood the higher arts of persuasion. Little did I realise that the Kerry Affair was merely the opening salvo in a far bigger campaign for hearts and minds. It is not a campaign for my heart or mind and probably not yours. I’m not an employee of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and I certainly don’t sit on the Parliamentary Inquiry into Obesity.

The Big Sugar campaign is not about convincing you and me that Coke is health food (although if we happen to come away believing that, it’s well and good). No, it’s about convincing ACMA (and Parliament) that Big Sugar does not market to children under 12. In fact Coke are so responsible that they’ve been voluntarily abstaining from such practices for years.

ACMA is proposing to update its Childrens Television Standards. At the start of its consultations it had toyed with the idea of (gasp) regulating the advertising of food and beverages to children. But after receiving some forceful submissions on the point, has decided now was not the time.

So what is Big Sugar worried about? When you read the fine print, the report says that ACMA won’t regulate for now. But the door has been left well and truly ajar. ACMA says it may change its mind if anyone comes up with a standard way of labelling foods which are high in fat, sugar and salt. This would then allow them to seriously consider rules aimed at limiting the advertising of such foods to children.

This is where those busy bodies over at the Parliament come in. Their inquiry into Obesity is turning up quite a few submissions from folks like CHOICE who want to see a traffic light system of labelling introduced to help consumers identify such foods. Big Sugar has attacked CHOICE for daring to propose such a thing, even suggesting that their researchers cooked the books.

Big Sugar doesn’t plan to sit back and meekly let unambiguous labelling be implemented so on Friday, the Second Act of the master strategy was unveiled on the media stage. Big Sugar in the guise of the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) announced they had a plan. They would voluntarily sign up to a code of conduct that says they won’t advertise to kids under 12.

What’s wrong with Big Sugar’s voluntary ban? Surely they’re helping out by jumping the gun? Well, in a word, no. This way they get to define the word ‘children’. In its initial examination of the need for reform, ACMA had been dropping disturbing hints about bans that defined a child as anyone under 16 (rather than 12).

Even worse than that, with ACMA doing the drafting there’d be no chance to parachute in weasel words like the ones proposed by Big Sugar. An example appears in the wording of the voluntary ‘ban’ itself when it says the ban should be applied “unless those products represent healthy dietary choices … presented in the context of a healthy lifestyle.

If you want to know what that looks like, you need look no further than Coke’s new website http://www.makeeverydropmatter.com.au which is choc full of healthy lifestyle messages for Coke drinkers.

Big Sugar’s hope is that by showing what terribly good corporate citizens they are, they’ll head the Parliamentary Obesity enquiry and ACMA off at the pass. Parliament won’t insist on traffic light labelling and Big Sugar will avoid the cascade effect of ACMA implementing actual bans rather than voluntary ones written by Big Sugar.

It may seem like Big Sugar is jumping at shadows, but as Simon Chapman pointed out in Friday’s edition of Crikey, Big Sugar has paid attention to what befell Big Tobacco. They know it’s better to stop this particular train before it leaves the station. If they can’t, they fear it won’t be long before the only place you’ll be able to see a Coke ad will be in the sealed section of an adult magazine.

Peter Fray

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