An advert showing lard oozing out of a biscuit. A poster with a biscuit and teaspoon of lard next to a cup of coffee with the caption 'do you want this with your coffee?'. It's enough to put anyone off fatty food. And that is exactly why the FSA is contemplating such tactics to persuade people to eat less saturated fat. But will they work?
As The Grocer's Weigh it Up! campaign predicted this time last year, certain meat, dairy, confectionery and snack products could soon be classed alongside cigarettes and alcohol as being bad for health (The Grocer, 1 March, 'Shock tactics on fat loom').
The move has sparked anger among manufacturers. "There are so many conflicting messages about what's good and bad that this may just confuse consumers," says Gary Frank, MD at cake manufacturer The Fabulous Bakin' Boys. "It will affect sales and may mean people will stop eating anything that contains fat, such as chocolate, cakes and biscuits."
Dairy UK has also dismissed the plans, as has the Food and Drink Federation. "Health promotion messages about food and diet will only be effective if they are positive, realistic and help people make informed choices about their diet," says an FDF spokesman. "The idea that any particular food is bad is misleading and simplistic."
This week, the FSA vehemently denied suggestions it planned to put cigarette-style warnings on food packaging. However, it defended the possible use of shock tactics, citing research suggesting they could work.
With the average UK consumer's saturated fat intake above the recommended level - the FSA wants to reduce it from 13.3% of energy intake to 11% - many agree shock tactics are the last chance to stem Britain's health crisis. "If the message is right and combined with arresting imagery it can be powerful," says Stephen Meadows, marketing manager at the British Heart Foundation. "It works."
The BHF says its 2006 Food4Thought campaign, which claimed half of UK children "drink" five litres of cooking oil every year by eating crisps each day and showed a girl swigging from a bottle of cooking oil, led to changes in attitudes towards eating crisps.
Its 2004 'fatty heart' anti-smoking advert led to more than 70,000 people visiting its website within a month of it being aired.
Unilever, which makes products that could be affected such as ice cream and mayonnaise, also believes shock tactics could work, but only if the FSA proactively helps consumers change their eating habits.
"A shock campaign could work if it is underpinned with practical tools so that once it gets people's attention, they get help to reduce their saturated fat intake," says George Gordon, head of external affairs. "There is broad industry consensus that we need to reformulate products and offer healthier options, but it's also acknowledged that shoppers receive mixed messages about the impact of saturated fat. We are encouraged this is not a one-off exercise, but integrated with the obesity strategy."
The FSA stresses that if it does use shock tactics, they will be just the first part in a three-pronged strategy that will also help consumers "relate" the message to their diets and "arm" them with the tools to change.
Back the initial message up in this way and the recourse to shock tactics could be justified, believes Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University. "The facts are shocking. The key issue is how the FSA conveys or delivers the shock. " n