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David Sawers: ‘Beach body ready’? Not sure if I am, but don’t be ashamed to say so if you are

Health and protection marketeers must avoid woke-washing to get their message across
Health Insurance & Protection Editor David Sawers

If you spend any time travelling on the London Underground, you’ll probably not have noticed many adverts for health insurance and protection providers, products or services – because there aren’t many.

Nor will you have seen many adverts promoting “fast food”, chocolate or sugary fizzy drinks – because they’ve been banned.

What I’m sure you would have noticed, though, are piles of freesheet newspapers and countless articles on the phones and tablets of fellow bemused passengers detailing the seemingly endless cycle of violent crime – largely the remit of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan – that has spiralled out of control across the capital over recent years.

That grim, almost-daily news cycle of knife and gun crime includes a 43% spike of violent crime on the Tube network between November 2015 and November 2018.

Thankfully, the risk of suffering violent crime on the London Underground remains low compared to other major global capitals; but it’s far higher than the risk that could be posed to life by fast food adverts on the network.

And yet a ban on those adverts that had been ordered by Mayor Khan kicked in earlier this year.

The ban was designed, apparently, to help to reduce childhood obesity by censoring adverts promoting “High Fat, Salt and Sugar” (HFSS) foods and products.

The targets were, the self-anointed health police told us, ads for “fast food” like burgers and pizza as well as sweets, fizzy drinks and other products that are high in sugar and that are ostensibly (but obviously not exclusively) targeted at children.

Hilariously, though, the ban also resulted – although presumably the Mayor didn’t intend it to – in a blackout of adverts for HFSS-laden poisons including olive oil, jam, pesto, cheese, tinned fruit and honey.

Transport for London (TfL) even had to remove an advert for the Wimbledon Tennis Championships that featured a (you cannot be serious!) potentially lethal image of strawberries and cream.

Yes, an advert containing strawberries (which, last time I checked, fall into the “fruit” not “HFSS” category) for a popular, once-a-year national celebration of sport also fell foul of the Mayor’s deranged diktat.

I suppose they could have kept the strawberries on the ads and photoshopped the cream out of the posters, but you can’t be too careful these days, what with the crime stats being as they are and all.

Cream can clearly kill, it seems, especially when consumed during the promotion and enjoyment of sport.

Meanwhile, an advert developed for self-styled online “ethical grocer” Farmdrop was also rejected by transport authorities because it contained images of those lethal HFSS killers bacon, butter, eggs and jam (yes, jam – the condiment killer strikes again!).

Then an advert promoting curry on display near Brick Lane – now a firmly-established tourist, tech/hip hub and “night-time economy” hotspot promoted by the Mayor of London and well known historically for, erm, curry restaurants – got canned as part of his re-education programme.

And then, there were awkward questions to answer about what to do with promotions across the transport network for charity cake sales. Oops.

Much of this lunacy has been expertly documented by Christopher Snowdon, director of lifestyle economics at the free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

The idiotic bans even came into force after Mayor Khan had imposed another blackout – this time on so-called “body shaming” ads – on the Tube network. That particular interdiction by Mayor Ban – sorry, Mayor Khan – included one of a lady in a bikini which encouraged people not to be obese, but to be “beach body ready” instead (yes, in much the same way that Olympic beach volleyball athletes tend to be “beach body ready” too).

To me, she looked the same as scantily-clad Olympic athletes and volleyball players employed by the health insurance and protection industry as ambassadors.

They wear similar outfits; yet one is “shaming”, one “Olympian”. One should be banned; one not. Go figure.

Quite what kind of impact Mayor Khan’s clampdown on the advertising industry is meant to have on childhood or adult obesity – I’m not sure how many children spend their pocket money on olive oil or eggs that aren’t made of chocolate – is beyond me.

Nor do I see how banning “body shaming” ads will help to address the hugely complex and distressing mental health problems endured by sufferers of eating disorders and their friends and family.

Surely the best way of dealing with something you find distasteful (I don’t but that’s besides the point) isn’t banning it – like 70,000 happy-easy-clicky online petitioners demanded – but coming up instead with creative or more informed ways of undermining it, debating it or simply ignoring it.

In any case, TfL said it was down to advertisers to make sure there was no more “body-shaming” ads on the network (Tube users are still free to dress how the please in Mayor Khan’s “tolerant” city – for now) and any products featured in their adverts were “HFSS-compliant”. Those that felt their products should not fall into the same HFSS range as “junk food” could apply for an exemption.

The self-anointed arbitrers who decide on these exemptions are beyond reproach, I’m sure. Yes, of course they are.

But there does seem to be more than a bit of self-righteous snobbery about the whole thing – olive oil and pesto good, cheeseburgers and fizzy soft drinks bad.

At the same time, the race to promote healthy living – not limited to the Mayor of London and TfL – is, on the face of it at least, driven by a well-meaning desire to improve public health.

However, the absurdity of many of those efforts exposes an unsettling hypocrisy that the health insurance and protection industry must be wary of.

That absurdity was underlined further this week at a conference in Cannes, France, when Alan Jope, chief executive officer of Unilever – parent company of brands including Magnum and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Marmite and Pot Noodle – told a conference that the advertising industry is risking its reputation by “woke-washing”.

According to Jope, the desperate race by some brands to embrace “woke” – in other words, self-justified, moralistic, paternalistic sentiment at any price – is undermining genuine efforts by advertisers to come up with creative campaigns that sell more product and raise brand awareness (yes, and generate wealth too) while serving a separate public good at the same time. Yes, believe it or not – all that can be done at the same time.

I agree with the Unilever boss; simply banning adverts for olive oil or chocolate or curtailing charity cake sale promotions while instead overloading consumers with a tidal wave of ineffective, ultra-woke messaging that lacks creativity or cut-through is counter-productive.

I have no idea if Unilever or other food manufacturers fund the IEA and it’s besides the point; the argument still stands regardless.

The health insurance and protection industry does some great work helping people who want to get healthier, erm, get healthier.

And the types of tie-ups it currently has with healthy eating and lifestyle brands appear, for the moment at least, to show restraint, creativity and common sense.

But for how long? If the madness goes on, providers could quite easily find themselves woke-washing their brands, refusing to sponsor celebrities, sports events or sportsmen and sportswomen – simply because the social justice warriors have decreed it so.

They could quite easily find themselves embroiled in a race to the bottom trying to out-woke their competitors. A white noise barrage of anti-obesity and healthy living messages will emerge and simply pass many people by – and antagonise and disenfranchise many others.

Selling more health and protection products is good – and believe it or not, selling Pot Noodles and Magnums is fine, too, as is being “beach body ready” – as is being plus-sized (some might say “obese”) and “ready for summer” (something that I don’t find distasteful but again that’s besides the point).

In any case, I’m going to keep on chomping away on burgers, olive oil, yoghurt, avocados and the odd chocolate bar and can of Coca-Cola – and allow my child to do so too, albeit in moderation, in the style of former MP John, now Lord Deben, Gummer.

Maybe my daughter and I might have the occasional Magnum and Pot Noodle too, now and again, safe in the knowledge that London’s Mayor is protecting us from the pushers of these evil products that want to kill us while we travel on the Tube, catching up on all the latest news about London’s ongoing knife crime crisis.

I might even do some sit-ups if the carriage is ever quiet enough.

With any luck, I’ll be able to get beach body ready – before I get stabbed on my way home.