In February, Michelle Obama heralded a new front in America’s war against obesity. During a summit of the Partnership for a Healthier America, the First Lady declared that if big food companies “are going to pour money into marketing unhealthy foods, then let’s fight back with ads for healthy foods.”
She unveiled a campaign to “creatively market fruits and vegetables to take back America’s taste buds.” Dubbed FNV, for fruits and vegetables, the promotional effort will use “dynamic visuals, a self-aware tone, compelling spokespersons and savvy activations to market fruits and veggies in an entirely new way.”
Victors and Spoils, the Colorado-based ad agency tasked with handling the campaign, elaborated that while fruits and vegetables possess “vibrant colors and interesting flavors,” they lack the “marketing pixie dust” that make processed-food brands irresistible.
In essence, the idea is to use junk-food tactics to sell healthy foods.
On one level the campaign makes sense. In the United States, children are bombarded with 10,000 to 20,000 commercials every year for high-calorie nutritionally poor foods like chips, pizza, soda, and candy. Food marketing is one of the main culprits behind the obesity epidemic with 32 percent of American kids overweight or obese. Most children under 12 lack the brain power to dissect advertising, making them uniquely susceptible to Madison Avenue’s flashy and subtle techniques alike. Food companies focus on children because scholars say little kids develop “brand preference” before they even begin nagging parents to buy them treats. One Yale University study found children ate 45 percent more of a salty, fatty snack when exposed to television food ads than when they saw no advertising.
So why not fight fire with fire, say public-health advocates. It worked for baby carrots. Led by the California-based Bolthouse Farms, forty-nine growers banded together in 2010 to promote baby carrots with the tag line, “Eat ‘em like junk food.” Using the arsenal of modern advertising—from billboards, in-store displays and self-parodying commercials, to neon packaging, a web series, vending machines and video games—the campaign boosted sales by 10 percent in test markets before being rolled out nationwide.
That’s the model for the FNV campaign, which has recruited celebrities like Hollywood Actress Jessica Alba, musician Nick Jonas, and NFL star Victor Cruz to make fruit and vegetables as cool as junk food. Except it won’t work.
While some marketing pixie dust may rub off on apples and broccoli, the campaign is completely outgunned. It has a US$5 million budget. The baby-carrot campaign had a $25 million war chest. In comparison, McDonald’s alone spent $972 million in U.S.-based advertising in 2012. Overall, food companies spend an estimated $10 billion annually to market to American youth, and the vast majority of that is for junk food.
Fresh produce can never come close to narrowing the marketing gap, and the reasons for this reveal why a junk-food style campaign will not only fail to foster good eating habits, it may backfire by encouraging unhealthy trends.
The market strength of iconic foods comes from brand names that are trademarked, production processes that are patented, and recipes that are trade secrets. For instance, Nestle has 654 patents and Coca-Cola, 369 patents. For big food processors, the raw ingredients are one of their smallest costs. The corn in a two-ounce bag of Doritos may cost a couple of pennies. But Frito-Lay’s proprietary production methods and marketing juggernaut means it can charge a dollar or more for that bag.
Brands like Doritos are “value-added” products. That means a basic commodity is enhanced in some way so one can charge more than a generic version. This is what Starbucks did with coffee, Hershey’s with chocolate and sugar, Kraft with cheese, and Kellogg’s with corn, wheat, and rice. Successful branding enables companies to extract high profits from low-cost goods. Then they pour huge sums into more marketing, promotion, and branding to convince consumers they are buying an experience, not just a bag of chips or bottle of soda. Companies also use marketing, promotion, and exclusivity deals to help them dominate shelf space and markets, which shuts out competitors and extends their control, market share, and pricing power. (There is also overlap between value-added products and the concept of “monopoly rents.”)
This is the slippery slope of junk-food marketing. The FNV campaign aims to “go toe-to-toe with other big iconic brands.” But the only way it can match the marketing muscle of junk food is by creating actual branded goods that add value to the basic commodity. With food this often involves additional processing, and that is the story of baby carrots, which are value-added regular carrots.
One rule of healthy eating is the less standardized, less processed and fresher the food, the more nutrients it has. Heirloom carrots plucked hours before being sold at a farm stand are generally more nutritious than commercial varieties of carrots shipped 2,000 miles to a supermarket. In turn, whole carrots are superior to baby carrots that are trimmed, sanitized, packaged, and may sit for weeks in refrigerators. Most forms of processing speed up the decay of nutrients, which is probably why baby carrots have lower levels of vitamins and minerals than regular carrots.
While the American diet is so poor most people would benefit from munching on baby carrots regularly, they are not as good as a plain unbranded carrot. But Bolthouse needs a branded product, otherwise any agribusiness concern could grab market share by selling any carrot cheaper. In fact, 96 percent of the billion-dollar baby carrot market is controlled by Bolthouse and one other company across the street from it in Southern California.
Tight market control enables the two producers to charge twice as much for a baby carrot as regular carrots. In 2012, Bolthouse took the value-added process a step further. It introduced “Shakedowns,” small bags of baby carrots with a separate spice pack. Having the consumer combine two packaged processed foods is a time-tested method of increasing sales and value. The innovation allows Bolthouse to sell carrots to the public for about seven dollars a pound—five to ten times the prices of regular carrots.
While the Shakedowns are low calorie, it’s another step closer to junk food. Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit and a critic of the food industry, points out the implications when she asks, “How will kids learn to eat more veggies if they must always be heavily seasoned and marketed?” Marketing healthy food as junk food encourages snacking, convenience foods, and packaged goods—habits that are all implicated in the obesity epidemic. Marion Nestle, one of the nation’s leading nutrition experts and professor at New York University, says the food industry’s profit motive leads it to urge “people to ‘eat more’ by making it socially acceptable to eat anywhere, anytime, and in very large amounts.”
Grabbing a bag of baby carrots is better than potato chips, but it runs counter to encouraging set meal times with others and eating dishes made from fresh whole foods. Additionally, junk-food marketing teaches children that plain foods are boring, and they need flashy commercialswith guns, explosions, hot babes and dinosaurs to be interesting. Kids already think a food tastes better when packaged, and the baby-carrot campaign reinforces that.
The FNV campaign falls into the same trap. A celebrity may grab kids’ attention, but it teaches them to look to sports stars and actors for dietary advice. And food companies have long used stars to pitch junk food.
One study found that when athletes endorsed foods and beverages, 85 percent were for energy-dense, nutrient-poor products like Gatorade, Oreos, Coca-Cola, and big fast-food chains. Many children will have difficulty understanding they should listen to one athlete telling them to eat oranges, but not another telling them to eat Big Macs. It’s also likely that branding will lead farmers, producers, and retailers to create patented value-added products that return higher profits so they can afford all the marketing. The cost will be higher prices, lower nutritional quality and poorer eating habits.
Junk-food companies are also savvy enough to know they are not threatened by healthy foods adopting their techniques. Commenting on the baby-carrot campaign, a spokesperson for Frito-Lay gloated, “We’re happy to serve as an inspiration.” They know junk-food-style advertising promotes all junk food consumption.
This is what happened with the “Great Cola War” between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, in which the rivals have spent billions of dollars in trying to achieve market supremacy. In reality, explains PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico, “If the Coca-Cola Company didn’t exist, we’d pray for someone to invent it … when the public gets interested in the Pepsi-Coke competition, often Pepsi doesn’t win at Coke’s expense and Coke doesn’t win at Pepsi’s. Everybody in the business wins. Consumer interest swells the market. The more fun we provide, the more people buy our products—all our products.”
If junk-food marketing did threaten the junk-food industry, it would be up in arms. What does threaten junk food are stringent federal nutrition standards, soda taxes, limits on advertising to children, banning toy giveaways with fast-food meals, healthier school lunches, subsidizing the purchase of fresh foods by food-stamp recipients. It’s why the food giants marshal armies of lobbyists to fight all these measures.
Junk-food marketing needs to be trashed, and the focus returned to fighting the processed-food industry instead of imitating it.