Dan Parker spent two decades working with ‘big food’ corporations – until obesity-related type 2 diabetes made him decide to change direction
A former advertising executive who spent two decades working with “big food” corporations has revealed how they are still working to persuade us to eat more sugar and junk food in spite of the obesity epidemic.
Dan Parker, who was a successful advertising executive earning his living promoting Coca Cola and McDonalds, told the Guardian in his first interview that the food industry is behaving like Big Tobacco. “I think what the food industry does now will define where it lands. If it behaves like tobacco it will end up being treated like tobacco. And I think it is behaving like tobacco,” said the former industry insider.
Parker’s life changed when he was diagnosed with obesity-related type 2 diabetes, the disease that killed his father. In a “lightbulb moment”, he realised he could help save people’s lives by using his skills to try to help curb the junk food we eat.
Parker founded a charity called Living Loud, bringing on board others from marketing and advertising. In their first year of existence, they have helped anti-obesity campaigners like the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation understand the industry and communicate their messages.
Asking the industry, supermarkets and advertising agencies to voluntarily dial down what they do will not work, he says. They need limits imposed by government so that everyone is on a level playing field. Parker cites the shrinking size of chocolate bars to illustrate how voluntarism is not working. Manufacturers have produced smaller portion sizes, but they have not cut the prices.
“This has made people angry. People are howling with rage about the fact that their single chocolate bar is smaller but the same price,” he told the Guardian. And their response is to buy the bigger bar which looks like better value for money – while the industry is now advertising the family size as something one person can eat by themselves.
“What you’re seeing is a lot of advertising for the bigger bar. You are seeing a lot of promotion of the bigger bar at point of purchase,” he said. “In WH Smiths you get thrust a £1 chocolate bar if you go in there for anything.”
Figures published in The Grocer magazine showed that single chocolate bar sales were down year on year in 2016 by about 5% to around £130m whereas sales of the tablet bars of around 100g were up 7.6% to £420m and the share bags were up 2.7% to about £300m. “What’s happening is this massive migration from the single bar to the bigger bar,” said Parker.
The chocolate companies are promoting this choice with adverts like the Audrey Hepburn Galaxy video, showing a digitally recreated Hepburn figure deciding to sit in the back seat of the car of a handsome admirer so she can eat a large bar of chocolate by herself, says Parker.
“What that’s doing is normalising the idea that 100g bar is an individual portion of chocolate – although it will say on it you shouldn’t eat more than 30g in tiny little writing on the bottom, the advert says that for Audrey it’s a single portion,” he said. The same is true of an advert showing Gary Lineker in hospital with a large bag of crisps, which he refuses to share with his children.
“Both those adverts are formalising a larger portion size. I don’t think that’s very healthy,” he said.
Parker was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes four years ago, a result of obesity and long working hours spent at a desk. “I closed down my business and I decided that I would try and do something about it. I felt a need to redeem myself in some ways but also I guess I felt an immense sadness that the suffering that’s happened in my own family probably should have been avoided,” he said.
He reversed his diabetes through a strict diet with the help of Dr David Cavan, with whom he now has a commercial venture, offering a programme called “Diabetes Turnaround”.
He was on Brighton beach when he realised he could be part of the solution. “ If you want to boil obesity down, the single most important issue is what we put in our mouth. And nobody knows more about why people put in their mouth what they put in their mouth than the people who sit around the table at Coca Cola and McDonalds and Asda and these companies. I sat round that table. I got paid a lot of money because I was pretty good at this. So I suddenly realised that not only did I have this huge great desire to do something but I kind of went – you know what – I think I might be part of the answer here.”
The food industry, Parker says, is at a crossroads. “If [the food industry] continues to sit there saying we’re great, there’s no problem, it’s all to do with everything else, eventually suddenly there will be a switch in public will and then there will be an awful lot of bad regulation happening,” he said.
“What’s clearly happening at the moment is the food industry’s working hard to drag its heels,” he said. It funds research showing obesity is about lack of exercise or other factors. “It’s all about deflecting it away from being about what we eat.
“The very inconvenient truth that nobody wants to talk about is that to resolve the obesity crisis, we need to eat less food. And we need to particularly eat less unhealthy food which generally comes in a packet and has a logo on it and is generally owned by a very large multinational corporation.”
As a nation, we probably need to reduce the total amount of food we consume by 10-20% and we need to reduce the amount of unhealthy food we eat by 20-30%, he believes.
“There are an awful lot of people not very interested in seeing the size of the packaged food industry drop by those kind of figures. The amount of money involved is billions of pounds.” That includes the food industry, the supermarkets, the exchequer and also the media. “Parts are almost entirely propped up by advertising for those unhealthy products. Early Saturday night TV, for example, would struggle without pizzas and fishfingers.”
He thinks his charity can help bridge the gap between the academics and institutions who know about obesity but argue over nutrients and technicalities on the one hand, and the large numbers of people suffering poor health on the other, who are told by the NHS they are in trouble and are in despair – which is the space, he says, between fear and knowledge.
They are not communicating, Parker says, and the messages are uninspiring. He thinks he and his colleagues can change that. “We’ve taken pension plans and credit cards and cars and all sorts of complicated and dull and boring things and we turn them into simple and persuasive messages. That’s what we do.”
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