It’s OK – Let Elmo Be a Carrot Pusher

by Bettina Elias Siegel on November 6, 2013

sesame street fruit vegetableLast week, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that the Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) will join the Partnership for a Healthier America to help promote fruits and vegetables to kids.  Specifically, PMA’s growers, suppliers and retailers will be allowed for two years to use iconic characters such as Elmo and Big Bird in messaging and on produce sold in stores — all without paying any licensing fees.

The arrangement represents an extraordinary boon to the produce industry, since, as Helena Bottemiller Evich notes in Politico:

By not charging the produce industry, the Sesame Workshop is forgoing millions in licensing fees. As its website reports, product licensing accounts for as much as 38 percent — the largest chunk — of the not-for-profit’s $113 million in annual revenue.

Now, there are some food advocates who object to the marketing of anything to kids, even healthy foods, on the grounds that

[m]arketing branded produce such as Kung-Fu Panda Edamame to children instills the unhealthy habit of choosing food based on marketing cues such as celebrity, rather than on a child’s own innate hunger, taste, or good nutrition.

A few advocates also criticize these sorts of corporate arrangements with the White House as lacking transparency and bestowing undeserved good PR on the companies entering into them.

But I’m fine letting Elmo push carrots on unsuspecting kids, and here’s why:

It’s a sad but undeniable fact that kids today live in a marketing-saturated world, with the food and beverage industries specifically targeting children with almost $2 billion per year in advertising expenditures, spent not just on traditional media but also online games, social media and other avenues that parents are hard-pressed to monitor.  And that marketing is invariably promoting the least healthy foods.

A governmental effort to curb that onslaught  through purely voluntary guidelines was soundly defeated by industry in 2012.  Moreover, as the Reuters news agency noted in a special report on food industry lobbying and childhood obesity:

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.

Since I am (as you now know from last week’s Civil Eats post) more of a realist than an idealist, I’m not especially hopeful that our elected officials will suddenly find the courage to defy Big Food — and forgo its campaign contributions — nor am I hopeful that industry will change its ways voluntarily on a widespread basis.  So faced with this status quo, I’m willing to overcome understandable squeamishness about marketing to children and try to beat the industry at its own game.

And we know that character-driven marketing does work with kids.  A recent Cornell study, for example, demonstrated convincingly that children are more likely to choose an apple over a cookie if the apple bears a sticker featuring a beloved character — in that case, as a matter of fact, Elmo.

Moreover, as I noted in a prior Lunch Tray/HuffPo post (“Is it Wrong to Market Even Healthy Foods to Kids?”), the notion that actively marketing fresh fruits and vegetables to kids will override their “innate hunger” just doesn’t fly with me.

There’s a reason why one of Michael Pollan’s most famous Food Rules is “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you’re probably not hungry.” We mindlessly overeat when food triggers our hardwired love of salt, sugar, fat and refined carbs, but I don’t know of any kids — or adults, for that matter — who gorge on fruits and vegetables to a degree that’s detrimental to their health.

Or, to put it another way, right now only one in five high schoolers are getting the recommended “five servings a day” of produce.  If, as a result of the Sesame Street/PMA partnership, children are suddenly eating too many apples and carrots, that’s a “problem” I think we all can live with.

So kudos to the Sesame Workshop for letting Elmo and friends hawk produce for free.  Now stay tuned until 2016 to see if the plan actually increases kids’ consumption of these healthful foods.  I’m guessing it will.

[Ed. Note: To learn how Madison Avenue might effectively market broccoli to adults, check out last Sunday's New York Times magazine story by Sugar Salt Fat author Michael Moss.  Interestingly, according to Politico, Moss may have played a tangential role in bringing Sesame Street and PMA together at the White House.]

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Monika R November 6, 2013 at 7:13 am

My sentiments exactly!

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Janet @ Rainbow Plate November 6, 2013 at 7:30 am

Thank you for this thorough and thoughtful post, Bettina! Though I’ve struggled with some of these questions recently myself, I am definitely along with you, in the “realist” camp. We are challenged with a huge task as we work towards the goal of a healthier future for our children. The issues are complex and there is a diverse set of players on the field. I agree that we need to avoid viewing solutions as either “right” or “wrong,” and instead be willing to give creative strategies a try. If Elmo helps kids to think veggies are cool, I’m ok with that.

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Casey November 6, 2013 at 7:51 am

This barely makes a dent in the imbalance when $4.6 billion is spent on advertising fast food vs. $116 million advertising fruits and vegetables. We need to be more aggressive in putting a stop to junk food marketing to kids. How? Help parents understand that things like soda, fast food and sugar can be addictive. It worked for ending the marketing of cigarettes and alcohol to children.

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Donna November 6, 2013 at 7:52 am

If Elmo encourages kids to grab an extra apple or to request that apples get on the grocery list in the first place, that’s a big win in my book.

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Sally Kuzemchak November 6, 2013 at 8:27 am

Well, you know I’m certainly a realist too! :) Characters on packaging may encourage kids to try a new vegetable or fruit–and unlike hyper-palatable processed food that is engineered to be addictive, fruits and vegetables can then simply become mainstays in a child’s diet that they eat because they’re hungry and because the food tastes good.

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Caron @ First Bites November 6, 2013 at 12:54 pm

Thanks for writing this. I think about this issue alot and agree that being a realistic and working in the environment in which we live is the key to making a positive change. If Elmo gets kids excited about carrots – fantastic! There is no one easy solution here – we need to be creative and find different messages, tactics and entry points to create real change.

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