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Madhukar Sabnavis: Are we getting paranoid?

Madhukar Sabnavis  |  New Delhi 

Health consciousness is drifting to health paranoia.
In the 80s, a kardi oil "good for health" brand promoted itself as the ideal cooking medium for people with heart problems. It used a doctor testimonial to support its claim. In the early 90s it used fear of a heart problem to get itself into the basket of a household's monthly purchase. Today it encourages people to indulge themselves with oily foods, knowing fully well that with "low cholesterol" oil there is less to fear!
When a bakery brand wanted to sell "brown bread" in the early 90s, it looked at direct marketing aimed at the westernised "Peddar Road" audience and positioned itself as a lifestyle product. Today it gets off the shelf without any direct advertising or communication. And brown bread is an option on many sandwich menus!
In 1993, standing on a railway platform, I wondered whether any person, in his right mind, would actually pay to buy packaged water. After all, it's one of the most basic essentials of life and one was accustomed to watching passengers jump off at stations to fill their bottles and "matkas" at the nearest tap quite fearlessly. In fact, I actually joked that maybe if this became a norm, someday some marketer may learn the art of selling "pure air" for breathing""I believed I was fantasising. Today, "Mineral water or normal water?" is a standard first question asked by waiters at the plushest of restaurants!
Life has come a long way from the time that "health" and "health consciousness" were a fad, then a trend. Like all things in life, it started small""more the vocation of the elite""but gradually has spread its way around and today it's invading us all around. The implications are quite interesting and there for all of us to see.
First, it has given rise to the growth of healthier, diet, "low calorie" options in many categories. So a snack food is now promoting itself as "baked", not "fried", to ride the health trend. A number of taste-driven categories have brought in health dimensions""like biscuits parading the goodness of wheat and noodles bringing in "wheat atta" options to make it more valuable. And the commoditised "wheat atta" has brought extras like fibre and minerals to become more wholesome. And then it has given a role for packaged fruit juices in consumers' lives""a healthier option to the more "vibrant, contemporary" bottled aerated drinks. And yes, the lemon drinks have an edge over the classic colas because "nimbu" is seen as lighter and healthier than the more heavy and gaseous colas. The revival of coffee has perhaps as much to do with its naturalness as with the arrival of coffee bars""an opportunity that tea too is tapping into!
The power of this health consciousness has been exploited by products beyond foods too. A TV brand in the early 2000s actually created a "golden eye" property to say it's good for the eyes and made a major inroad in the market. A "jeans" brand a few years ago positioned itself as good for the skin""an interesting benefit of "natural" cotton against conventional synthetics and polyester. Toilet soaps have promises of germ kill that help kids to get 100 per cent attendance in class or encouraged kids to get dirty without fear. And another has promised teenagers pimple-free skin. And the exponential growth of gymnasiums is the successful marriage of the functional benefit of health with the emotional need to look good""driving the services end of this consumer need. The pharmaceutical world has leveraged this too""leading to the arrival and development of preventive drugs, which have brought medicine chests out from the bathroom (where they used to be for emergencies) on to the dining table, to be had alongside or after meals! And executive health check has become a business of its own""giving hospitals a new revenue stream""hospitals don't cater for the ill only but also those who fear illness! Finally, the physiological health consciousness has simultaneously built the need for psychological wellness""leading to the growth of courses like "art of living" and "stress management" and the popularity of yoga and meditation.
Is this good or bad? The Internet and the media have democratised health knowledge. And the average consumer is today more aware of health issues. He eats foods more wholesome than he did years ago. He has no longer to depend on curative solutions but has preventive ones too. There is no doubt that he is living longer. And, health is gradually moving towards "well-ness"""a more holistic concept. However, there are deeper issues to ponder about.
The biggest one is that while "life's diseases" have been combated, "lifestyle diseases" have crept in""a self-inflicted evil. The business world""its competitiveness, the capitalism and the stress to succeed""has disrupted the normal individual's life to such an extent that it has unconsciously opened new business opportunities! So, while people buy healthier products, they are having unhealthy lifestyles; with the growth of health services, people are forcibly inviting more ailments on to themselves. While our grandparents did not have access to the kind of products available today, they led simpler and more regulated lives, in an environment that was cleaner and healthier. They worked the right number of hours, ate at the right time, and slept at the right hour. Has society given up these basic practices and substituted these with new "health regimes"?
However, despite the apparent growth of health awareness, it's debatable whether consumers have actually become more knowledgeable. "No knowledge" has perhaps given way to "half knowledge", leading to people becoming self-appointed experts and not necessarily doing the right thing.
Finally, there is a proliferation of health stories in the media through editorials and advertising. However, as these are being beamed at a relatively health-illiterate audience having unhealthy lifestyles, this is creating anxieties which could be less real and more imagination""a product of half-baked knowledge. People are thinking more than necessary on the subject. Increasing consciousness to the extent of making it paranoia is dangerous!
So is the thought that someday a clever marketer can package air and charge consumer for it a fantasy? Maybe not""paranoid consumers might actually buy it!
Something worth thinking about.
The author is Country Head- Discovery and Planning, Ogilvy and Mather, India. The views expressed are personal.

First Published: Fri, August 04 2006. 00:00 IST