It’s bright, bold, and doesn’t beat about the bush. If (somehow) you’ve missed it, the new £8m Change4Life TV advert is a cartoon timeline of man’s relationship with food. A journey that begins with woolly mammoth hunting and ends with junk food in front of the telly.

The ad is the consumer launch of the Government’s three-year campaign to tackle an obesity time-bomb that experts say may cause 90% of today’s children to be overweight or obese by 2050.

So what role is the grocery industry likely to play in Change4Life? And what are the implications for food and drink producers and retailers should it fail?

Under the title of Business4Life, Unilever, Nestlé, Kellogg’s, Mars, Cadbury, Kraft, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have signed up. Together, they will stump up £200m of the overall £275m budget.

Unilever says it will use the branding in its sponsorship of the London Marathon in April. Kellogg’s plans to provide £100,000 a year for the next three years to its breakfast clubs and aims to develop new clubs in 500 deprived areas.

On the retail side, too, multiples including Tesco, Asda and The Co-operative Group have also signed up. Some, notably Sainsbury's, have held back due to uncertainty over how existing healthy initiatives would sit with Change4Life. The British Retail Consortium says it is seeking to resolve this problem. “Our members want to be clear what activities they will be involved in, and how they will be audited,” explains a spokesman.

But retailers have little to fear, suggests Richard Watts, co-ordinator of Children’s Food Campaign. Watts believes companies that get involved in Change4Life face “loose terms of engagement”. Although impressed with the “non-hectoring” tone of the TV ad, Watts thinks the Government has missed an opportunity by not passing on conditions to corporate partnerships in the form of legislation, such as banning advertising of less healthy food before 9pm. “The Government is in danger of crying wolf over its continued threats to legislate if things don’t change. It has essentially been issuing the same threat in various guises since 2004 and the Choosing Health White Paper.”

Other lobby groups share the same view. Says Sue Davies, policy advisor at Which?: “Big, colourful marketing campaigns are all well and good, but the Government and food industry must take effective action on a wide range of fronts, whether it’s through a simplified method of nutrition labelling or restricting [further] the marketing of less healthy food to children.”

However, at the unveiling of the ad campaign last week, Health Minister Ben Bradshaw said should Change4Life fail, the Government would not rule out regulating the food and drink industry.

And the industry is likely to be more fearful given the Government’s determination to push through the ban on cigarette displays – an example of its recent more hard-line approach. 

However, the completion of Change4Life will not come until 2012 – and that may have brought a different Government to power.

The Tories are broadly supportive. Andrew Lansley, Shadow Health Secretary, called Healthy Towns (a Change4Life initiative promoting healthy activities in deprived areas) a “short sighted approach to health issues” in autumn, but he supports the current collaborative approach.

“Legislation is a blunt tool that proves counter-productive,” says a Conservative Party spokesman. “The best thing is to change attitudes and behaviour.”

Where the Tories are in agreement with the pro-legislation lobby is in believing this initiative will not cure obesity on its own. “It’s vital that this is the first part of a wider structure of improving diet and health,” says Lansley.

Adds Davies: “Change4Life is a good appetiser, but we look forward to seeing more.” n