"Like it or loathe it," the news story began with rather dull predictability, "but Marmite could help millions of miscarriages and birth defects around the world."
One day later, NHS Choices responded to what it described as this "rather optimistic" headline. It said that the story, based on the fact that Marmite is high in levels of Vitamin B3, was fundamentally flawed. It's not clear who was responsible for the original PR behind the story.
NHS Choices pointed out that the story, also picked up by other UK media channels that should know better such as Sky News, was based on research into just four families who have endured birth defects, with three of the families also having had miscarriages. After sequencing the families’ DNA, it was found that all the children with birth defects suffered from similar rare genetic defects that prevent a particular enzyme working. Vitamin B3 is thought to stimulate this enzyme, ergo the credulous headlines and brilliant PR for Marmite.
And so over to Adam & Eve/DDB, which has also donned white lab coats for a campaign that, while not potentially offering the same levels of false hope as the previous study, still wraps itself in pseudo-science. The agency was responsible for "facilitating" this second study, it says, but did not pay for it – Unilever did.
A clinical trial was carried out among 260 UK adults by an outfit called DNAFit that involved cheek swabs and the identification of genetic markers that may or may not link their preference to the product.
In fairness. this is ostensibly a bit of fun – a study into whether there are any genetic markers associated with Marmite taste preference. In other words, whether there is any science between its long-running "love it, hate it" strapline.
The scientific paper is obviously hedged and non-committal – in fact, there doesn’t seem to be much science behind it at all – but as a piece of PR guaranteed to generate headlines, it’s gold. For Adam & Eve/DDB, which has created a TV campaign to support the stunt, it’s also a neat opportunity to flex its creative muscles, without overtly troubling The Royal Society or NHS Choices. The agency, as usual, pulls it off.
Anyone wanting to discover their own genetic predisposition to Marmite could buy a test kit from Unilever for the princely sum of £89.99 – just £85 more expensive than buying a special "gene project" tub of the yeast product (geddit?) – and sent it off for testing.
As an extension of the already memorable body of work for the brand, this wheeze carries on the theme in a memorable way. And, given that many people don’t even like telling retailers their email addresses, surely no-one would really be willing to share their DNA with Unilever by participating. Would they?
But that's not really the point – Marmite continues to surprise. And at least this time no real damage has been done.