The Australian Heart Foundation has found a new and even more devious way to entangle itself with the interests of the processed-food industry. Its new Mums United campaign pretends to be a grassroots movement for healthy living. But it walks like a margarine advertisement and quacks like a margarine advertisement, so guess what it I think it is.

The Heart Foundation’s Mums United campaign asks mums to “change the shape of Australia”. No earth-moving equipment is required, so I suspect they mean they’ll change the shape of Australians. Apparently dads are not up to the task (or is it just that in the Heart Foundation’s world mums do all the shopping?).

Putting aside its deeply patronising premise, mums can get going with their “fat-busting” using some tips from the Heart Foundation. Tip #2 is to make sure mums use margarine instead of butter.

The campaign was launched just last month, but already it has received impressive media coverage and has a Facebook group with more than 4500 followers. Selin Tas posted a link to her blog post, which says “We finished our [Mum’s United] meeting pledging never to purchase butter again”.

And Selin is not the only one. The Facebook page is full of mums posting stories of how they have organised groups of fellow mums and sworn off butter. The casual reader could easily come to the conclusion that the Heart Foundation has tapped into a throbbing artery of desire (among Australian mummy bloggers) to change the health of a nation (or at least to eat more margarine).

Except that (rather like the construction of sausages) it is better not to look too closely at the process. I turns out that Mums United is an advertising campaign.  Roberta Donovan, marketing director of the Heart Foundation, explained to an advertising industry magazine “our campaign galvanises mums into being part of an ongoing movement — one that sees Australians work together to achieve a healthy weight for the nation.”

The social media and word-of-mouth campaigns are being run through “conversation marketing agency” Soup. Its website tells us that it gave mummy bloggers “a $10 voucher” and asked them to “hit the supermarket and buy margarine instead”. Soup tells us that the “results were outstanding; most [mummy bloggers] reported … they have since made the switch to margarine …”

And Soup’s largesse doesn’t end there. Many of the bloggers report that Soup has sent them up to $350 of shopping cards to distribute as prizes to any readers who sign up to its Facebook pages or comment on its Mums United blog posts.

It all sounds like a bonanza for the mummy bloggers and their readers (and at least, according to Soup, it’s working). I asked the Heart Foundation who was paying for all of this. It told me that there are several social media campaigns being run by Soup on its behalf but it refused to say who was picking up the tab for any of them. All it would say is that companies entitled to use the tick can optionally get involved in “co-operative marketing” programs (such as Mums United).

And this is by no means the only example of co-operative marketing. Last year the Heart Foundation was involved (judging by the prominent use of its logo) with a series of infomercial-type advertisements put together by Goodman Fielder (the manufacturer of Meadow Lea). The commercials featured a cardiologist who told us “what saturated fats can do to your child’s health”. He then goes on to suggest that we should switch to a margarine spread made with plant seeds.

You can still see the ad on a website called Spread the Facts, which is “brought to you by Goodman Fielder” and that highlights the Heart Foundation’s recommendation that we swap margarine for butter.

The cosy relationship between margarine makers and the Heart Foundation is not new. In 2001, Bill Shrapnel (then a consultant nutritionist to Unilever Australia, maker of Flora margarine) pointed out that “Modern nutrition advice is one of the most negative influences on margarine consumption.” At the time, the Australian Healthy Eating Guidelines asked people to eat a low-fat diet and this negatively impacted on margarine sales (as it is a visible source of fat).

But as Shrapnel pointed out, things were improving (for the margarine manufacturers) because the Heart Foundation had just started recommending “an increase in the polyunsaturated fat content of the Australian diet of between 80 and 100%.” He then suggested this represented “a rare opportunity” and that “[p]erhaps … margarine companies should consider assisting the Heart Foundation in its educational activities about dietary fats”. It looks as if it listened to that very sage marketing advice.

The only trouble is that the Heart Foundation’s own analysis of the evidence does not support its co-operative marketing.  It is not hard to come away from the current campaign with the impression that eating less fat is good for your weight. But the Heart Foundation’s most recent (2003) position statement on the subject says exactly the opposite — “Dietary fat is not an independent risk factor for the development and progression of overweight and obesity.” [my emphasis]

And there’s absolutely no evidence that switching polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat will have any effect on weight. That stands to reason. They are both fats, and they both deliver nine calories per gram. As far as our digestive system is concerned, they are identical.

Margarine can be legally sold in this country. And margarine companies are entitled to use every (legal) marketing tactic to sell their product. But why is our Heart Foundation rolling around in the marketplace with them? Why is it sneaking through the back alleys of the internet, whipping up mummy blogger campaigns with gift cards? And why is it happy to create an impression about health benefits that it knows not to be true?

The Heart Foundation’s tick program generates money for a charity and I guess that’s a good thing. But it comes with a heavy price. Co-operative marketing means the Heart Foundation’s health halo is sullied by commercial interests. It means (whether it intends it or not) that the foundation becomes a spokesperson for the processed-food industry. And the result is that the foundation is less an independent umpire and more a player from the other team wearing the umpire’s uniform.

So do us all a favour Heart Foundation and give your tick (and the phoney campaigns that come with it) the flick.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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