Shooting ourselves in the foot: How the way we talk about food issues puts public health advocates at a disadvantage

printer friendlyprinter friendly

So many debates about food get fanned in front of the public as being an issue of "government regulation" vs. "personal choice." It happened a few months ago in a debate called "Is obesity the government's business?" It happened just days ago in a Colorado Health Symposium called "Food Fight!" And it has happened countless times in between.

Both sides make predictable arguments. Those against regulation say it's really consumers who drive corporate decisions and, therefore, need to be more responsible; and those for regulation explain why that's nonsense. People's willpower, as Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, will tell you, has not declined in the past few decades. Human nature hasn't changed; but our surroundings -- increasingly saturated with cheap, unhealthy foods -- have.

Sometimes people's minds are changed after these dialogues. Sometimes they aren't. And yet, regardless of which side wins a particular debate or how powerful any individual argument (like Wootan's) is, public health advocates are left at a disadvantage. That's because each time advocates engage in these debates, they risk inadvertently reinforcing their opposition's arguments.

This happens for two reasons:

First, the starting point for these debates -- the notion that people must decide between retaining or giving up personal choice -- is a false one. Regulation and choice are not mutually exclusive. Choice happens with or without regulation. When it comes to creating policies that improve public health, such policies don't threaten choice; they simply influence the context for it.

The question, then, becomes: What do we want that context to look like? Do we want our surroundings to work against us -- to be laden with salty, sugary, fatty foods that make it harder for us and our loved ones to be healthy? Or do we want our surroundings to work in our favor? And who do we want to be in charge of that context? The government, which has a duty to protect the safety, health and well-being of its people? Or major corporations, whose fiduciary responsibilities to increase profits dictate that they promote products that harm health instead of those that protect it?

Second, food issues are often framed in ways that, intentionally or not, pit the government against individuals and leave out the real culprit: industry. This happens any time we hear the common phrase, "government regulation." The term is a misnomer (after all, it's food industry regulation that's at issue here), and using it distracts people from thinking about the very thing that's in need of scrutiny. Priming people with this language cues up their existing ideas about government, which are often highly polarizing and can be negative even among those who agree that food industry practices are harmful to health and need to be reigned in.

Language matters. The people who control the terms of a debate often control the outcome of that debate. They influence not only how people view an issue but also how they act on it. With regard to food, that debate plays out in universities and newsrooms and even living rooms every day. And food and beverage companies are doing their best to dominate the conversation. They use the red herring of "choice" to scare people into siding against their own best interests.

So when public health advocates find themselves responding to questions about regulation or choice, they should reject the frames they're handed and create new ones instead. They can reframe the debate to expose the food industry's role in making people sick and point to solutions for compelling it clean up its act.

Black Lives Matter (1) sanitation (1) target marketing (8) authentic voices (1) media advocacy (23) sugar-sweetened beverages (2) childhood lead poisoning (1) white house (1) gender (1) soda warning labels (1) SB 402 (1) journalism (1) food industry (4) Nickelodeon (1) marketing (1) Let's Move (1) community violence (1) ACEs (2) childhood obestiy conference (1) Marion Nestle (1) naacp (1) autism (1) junk food marketing (4) tobacco control (2) elephant triggers (1) food deserts (1) regulation (2) environmental health (1) media (7) Twitter (1) apha (3) Oglala Sioux (3) Amanda Fallin (1) social change (1) Chile (1) built environment (2) childhood trauma (3) food (1) cannes lions festival (1) news monitoring (1) health care (1) physical activity (1) HPV vaccine (1) cervical cancer (1) Joe Paterno (1) obesity (10) online marketing (1) community (1) sexual assault (1) violence (2) soda tax (11) beverage industry (2) advocacy (3) Penn State (3) Proposition 47 (1) adverse childhood experiences (3) soda industry (4) social media (2) inequities (1) Texas (1) community organizing (1) democracy (1) food environment (1) public health policy (2) water security (1) auto safety (1) sexual violence (2) education (1) Bill Cosby (1) sexual health (1) SSBs (1) beauty products (1) Wendy Davis (1) Richmond (5) snap (1) violence prevention (8) nanny state (2) healthy eating (1) vaccines (1) American Beverage Association (1) Coca-Cola (3) gatorade bolt game (1) industry appeals to choice (1) media analysis (6) suicide barrier (2) summer camps (1) george lakoff (1) diabetes (1) new year's resolutions (1) cap the tap (1) Gardasil (1) Big Food (2) mental health (2) Bloomberg (3) public health data (1) public health (70) corporate social responsibility (1) emergency contraception (1) abortion (1) food access (1) indoor smoking ban (1) food swamps (1) personal responsibility (3) campaign finance (1) Donald Trump (2) Newtown (1) digital marketing (2) seat belt laws (1) Big Tobacco (3) paula deen (1) Berkeley (2) framing (14) tobacco (5) product safety (1) ssb (1) institutional accountability (1) Catholic church (1) sexism (2) news coverage (1) social math (1) prevention (1) california (1) communication strategy (1) childhood adversity (1) prison system (1) Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (2) racism (1) food justice (1) race (1) media bites (1) chronic disease (2) measure N (2) Golden Gate Bridge (2) news strategy (1) FCC (1) water (1) liana winett (1) alcohol (5) weight of the nation (1) election 2016 (1) strategic communication (1) reproductive justice (1) PepsiCo (1) stigma (1) women's health (2) political correctness (1) Telluride (1) food and beverage marketing (3) San Francisco (3) default frame (1) Michelle Obama (1) prison phone calls (1) tobacco industry (2) Johnson & Johnson (1) child sexual abuse (5) values (1) government intrusion (1) Whiteclay (4) safety (1) SB 1000 (1) Connecticut shooting (1) messaging (3) childhood obesity (1) Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (1) Aurora (1) suicide prevention (2) personal responsibility rhetoric (1) Sam Kass (1) sugary drinks (10) sports drinks (1) Sandy Hook (2) cigarette advertising (1) Twitter for advocacy (1) filibuster (1) news analysis (3) nonprofit communications (1) Food Marketing Workgroup (1) collaboration (1) genital warts (1) social justice (2) Citizens United (1) community safety (1) El Monte (3) junk food marketing to kids (2) world water day (1) choice (1) soda (12) communication (2) soda taxes (2) suicide nets (1) Big Soda (2) Rachel Grana (1) Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes (1) Merck (1) cancer prevention (1) junk food (2) paper tigers (1) health equity (10) obesity prevention (1) sandusky (2) Colorado (1) Measure O (1) cancer research (1) Happy Meals (1) McDonald's (1) youth (1) diabetes prevention (1) gun control (2) community health (1) news (2) equity (3) food marketing (4) children's health (3) cosmetics (1) SB-5 (1) structural racism (1) Pine Ridge reservation (1) Jerry Sandusky (3) Proposition 29 (1) tobacco tax (1) language (6) gun violence (1) breastfeeding (3) Oakland Unified School District (1) Dora the Explorer (1) privilege (1) Tea Party (1) front groups (1)
  • Follow Us On Facebook
  • Follow Us On Twitter
  • Join Us On Youtube
  • BMSG RSS Feed

get e-alerts in your inbox: