Asda boss in PR gaffe: when radio interviews turn nasty

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

Guilty as charged? You decide
Guilty as charged? You decide
A BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview took an unexpected turn this week after an Asda public relations boss admitted to presenter James Naughtie that two out of three Asda checkouts were “guilty” of tempting mums to buy sweets for children.

Mid-way through an interview about the government’s new hybrid labelling system​ on October 24, Sian Jarvis, corporate affairs director at Asda, confessed that only “one in three of our check outs are guilt free”.

In the sometimes heated exchange that followed, Jarvis said it was not Asda’s role to prevent shoppers from buying things they wanted.

But Naughtie replied: “Theidea that you just have things neutrally there for people to choose is rubbish. Of course not. You try to tempt people, that’s your job.”

Judge for yourself who won the war of words after reading our record of the exchange.


Naughtie​: “You said that you are committed to public health and that’s the reason you are pleased with this ​[hybrid labelling system]. On the other hand, the Children’s Food Campaign says that Asda is just about bottom of the heap when it comes to the way children’s health is dealt with. For example, more than 80% of your checkouts have great displays of fattening and sugar-loaded confectionery to tempt the mother with two children at the checkout. If you’re committed to public health, that’s not something you should be doing.”

Jarvis​: “We are looking at our checkouts with a view to …”

Naughtie​: “You accept that’s a fair criticism?”

Jarvis​: “We have … one in three of our checkouts are guilt free … what we call guilt-free checkouts …”

Naughtie​: “Why do you call them guilt free?”

Jarvis:“Erm … it’s … erm … it’s a term, I suppose a term that is commonly used in in retail …”

Naughtie​: “So, two out of three of your checkouts are deliberately guilty … by your own terminology?”

Jarvis​: “I don’t think we would put it that way …”

Naughtie​: “Well, hang on, if you’re saying to me: that one in three is guilt free, and that’s your terminology not mine, then two out of three are guilty.”

Jarvis​: “Well, it’s actually public health terminology …”

Naughtie​: “Well, I don’t care whose it is. It’s not mine it’s yours – you used it. So, two out of three are guilt laden and one is guilt free?”​  

Jarvis​: “I think it more refers to the choice the customer can take when they go through. I’m a mum and I have two small children. We, as retailers, are not there to prevent people making choices about what it is they want to buy.”

Naughtie​: “Oh come on, come on. Listen, you’re not seriously telling me that a supermarket doesn’t spend a great deal of time looking at designs which are designed to tempt people to buy things? That’s what marketing is about. You can’t say that you, like any other retail outlet, aren’t involved in that because you obviously are – you want to sell your goods. So the idea that you just have things neutrally there for people to choose is rubbish. Of course not. You try to tempt people – that’s your job.”

Jarvis​: “Well, we spend a great deal of money and investment and we recently spent £200M over the last three years improving the quality of all our products, so that we have fresh fish counters, we have fresh butchery and we have been winning awards for our in-store bakeries. So I think it would be wrong to suggest that we are there to drive customers into making the wrong choices. We know our customers want help in making healthier choices and putting healthier products in their baskets …”

Naughtie​: “OK, if that is true …”

Jarvis​: “And we were the first to adopt the traffic light labelling system. We’ve had it in place for five years.”

Naughtie​: “Indeed you were …”

Jarvis​: “And I think that demonstrates … our commitment. We were signatories to the public health responsibility deal. We were the first company to hit salt targets back in 2010 and we are on track … so we take it very seriously what our busy mums want.”

Naughtie​: “Right, if that’s true, just to use your own phraseology, will you have more than one in three of your checkouts guilt free?”

Jarvis​: “We will be looking at that as part of the responsibility deal. There is the food network that is looking at this issue in particular. There’s no evidence at the moment that it makes any difference to how many sweets or confectionery mums put in their basket. We stay very close to our consumers ... We want to give them what it is they want. We listen very closely to them and we will look at the evidence to see whether this changes behaviour. At the moment, there is no evidence that it does.”

Naughtie​: “Sian Jarvis, corporate affairs director at Asda, thank you.”

So, who got the better of this heated exchange? Let us know by casting your vote in the survey below.


Who got the better of this debate about Asda's 'guilty' check outs?

  • Jim Naughtie won hands down

  • Sian Jarvis recovered well after a wobbly start

  • Both sides gave as good as they got

  • Don't know


Related topics: Food Safety

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