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How we are being hoodwinked by detrimental marketing tactics

Australia needs better public health regulations to limit the promotion of harmful products such as tobacco, alcohol, soft drinks and junk food. These products fuel the non-communicable disease epidemic – the biggest cause of chronic ill-health and death, globally and in Australia.

In particular, marketing promotions that seek to increase consumption of these unhealthy products should be restricted. To continue to allow the use of inappropriate pricing practices and deceptive messages about the ‘healthiness’ of products that are so detrimental to public health is simply unacceptable.

For example, the extensive use of bulk-buy discounts is specifically designed to encourage consumers to make larger purchases, while actively discouraging the purchase of smaller quantities. The consequence of this conditioned purchase behaviour is increased consumption.

As a case in point, a single bottle of beer is frequently more than double the price of bottles in larger cartons. Similarly a single item of confectionary can be four times more expensive than the same item purchased in a multi-pack, and multiply this by six times for many soft drink brands.

Marketing initiatives that seek to reduce the perceived health risks associated with harmful products are also dubious.

Tobacco manufacturers have long used colour to imply that some cigarettes pose less of a risk: brands with lighter colours are perceived by smokers to be less harmful. But if a smoker thinks their Horizon White, Winfield Sky Blue, or Marlboro Gold cigarettes are healthier than the original reds, then they’ve been hoodwinked. If anything these ‘lighter’ variants are even more damaging to health.

Similar health connotations are evident in phrases such as ‘no artificial colours’ and ‘no additives’ frequently found on beer and junk food labelling, along with words such as ‘thin’ used to promote potato chips and ‘goodness’ implied in chocolate promotions. This strategy reflects manufacturers’ attempts to undermine the perceived health risks associated with consuming these products.

Further regulation is required. Volume-based discounting should be banned for harmful products. Unit price should remain the same regardless of whether you buy a single item or a six-pack. Bulk buy promotions would therefore cease and the resulting increased consumption avoided.

Similarly, communication that reduces perceived health risks should be restricted, since this reduces consumer motivation to eat and drink responsibly.

Consumers may be concerned that prices might increase, but prices per unit or volume would just even out across the pack size range, with little impact on the overall average price.

Critics of public health regulations need to remember that non-communicable diseases are responsible for more than 90 per cent of deaths in Australia, mainly through heart attacks, strokes, cancers, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes.

Marketing can do a great deal of good, but not when its total disregard for public health increases the consumption of harmful products, like alcohol, tobacco, sugary drinks and junk food.


Professor Steven Greenland

Dr Steven Greenland is Professor in Marketing at the Charles Darwin University Business School. He has a mixed academic-industry background, including ten years in senior positions at international market research agencies, as well as 20 years in academic roles at Australian and UK universities.

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