El Bulli and the bullies

6th Feb, 2015

Some years ago my colleagues identified a trend described as the Assault on Pleasure – a term that encapsulated much of our own thinking over the last decade.

The term refers to the increasing interference of government on our daily lives, particularly in areas affecting our health, as it tells us what we can and can’t do. Recent examples in the last year have concerned sugar, alcohol and salt. At one level, this is an understandable response to rising health costs and the burden it places on public spending. But at another level it could be argued that it is an attack on individual human rights in terms of the freedom to act, within the law, as you see fit. Arguably it is an assault on democracy. Furthermore, it seems to contradict another stated aim of government – to improve the wellbeing of its citizens (see blog ‘When Happy met Salary’, 4 April 2014). If people can’t do what they want to do and specifically in the area of leisure then is it likely their wellbeing will increase?

Where does El Bulli come in to all this? Until it was closed by its creator Ferran Adria last year El Bulli was considered the best restaurant in the world – perhaps ever. It was a test bed for innovation. Its alumni include Michelin starred chefs around the world like Britain’s Jason Atherton and the current global number one chef René Redzepi. Yet when Adria was asked on Newsnight last year by the indomitable Kirsty Wark what his favourite food was, he replied quite simply ‘salt’. Wark was flabbergasted. But Adria explained that salt was the most important ingredient in cooking as it changed the flavour of foods in subtle and interesting ways.

While of interest to foodies it is not easy reading for governments around the world and has huge implications for companies. The reasons governments are concerned is they are desperate to reduce health costs and feel they can do so by preventative pronouncements and guidelines.  Yet, all the things that make us happy and increase our wellbeing (as noted, a stated aim of governments around the world) – like eating good food, drinking fine wine, some leisure activities, even sex – now come with health warnings.

For companies this creates an almost impossible dilemma. Who are they serving, the government (which represents citizens) or the public who consume their products? It all suggests a future where the corporate world has an increasingly difficult balancing act between these two. It implies a greater role for lobbyists, PR companies and communications professionals; a closer relationship with independent specialists (without compromising their independence of course); and an increased investment in the company’s own research.

While this won’t solve the conflicting demands on business it will help to mitigate the potential damage.