In 2010 I told you about a new $25 million ad campaign, sponsored by carrot growers, to attract kids to baby carrots through the use of junk food-style packaging and marketing. Back then I mocked the effort, saying:
Somehow I don’t think today’s kids are going to willingly trade in their Flamin’ Hot Cheetos for carrots, no matter how cool the packaging (but at least with carrots, the orange doesn’t come off on your fingers.)
But it turned out the last laugh was on me. Just one year later I reported that the “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food” campaign, led by former Coca-Cola executive Jeff Dunn, was actually successful in increasing baby carrot sales.
Since then, many of us have learned a lot more about Dunn and his efforts from Michael Moss’s best-selling Salt, Sugar, Fat, which profiles how this once-enthusiastic promoter of sugary soda had a crisis of conscience, left his high level position at Coke and decided to use his marketing skills for good.
Yet despite Dunn’s early success with the “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food” campaign, I still remained skeptical of his goals precisely because carrots lack the headliners of Moss’s book: salt, sugar and fat. It’s Big Food’s careful manipulation of these palate-pleasing ingredients that hook us on junk food and keep us coming back for more, and so it seemed to me that the humble carrot was never going to be able to compete on a serious level with the micro-engineered Nacho Cheese Dorito.
But once again I’ve underestimated Dunn’s savvy. This week NPR reports that Dunn is implementing the next phase of his carrot campaign, in which junk-food style flavorings like Ranch and Chile Lime are added to baby carrots in a product called Veggie Snackers:
When kids open the package and shake in the seasoning, the carrots take on some of the characteristics of chips like Doritos. “They give you that crunch and flavor,” says Jeff Dunn, CEO of Bolthouse. “You’re going to lick your fingers, and get that same sensory [experience] you get with salty snacks.”
(Here’s a video of how the Veggie Snacker packaging works.)
There are those who object on a philosophical level to the use of any junk-food marketing tactics to market to kids, even if the product itself is healthy. (I should note here that the flavorings in Veggie Snackers are 100% natural.) For example, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) tweeted yesterday:
Is commercializing the veggie aisle & selling kids on extreme carrots that taste like Doritos the best way to improve kids’ diets?
And Michele Simon of Eat Drink Politics, also a staunch opponent of any marketing to children, tweeted:
how will kids learn to eat more veggies if they must always be heavily seasoned and marketed?
But Barry Cohen, who tweets under the handle @GeneralHealthy, responded:
Idealism vs. meeting kids where their brains & their parents’ brains are. Is eating more veggies good?
And he also asked:
If we triple kids’ consumption of whole veggies and displace the real junk…isn’t that a good thing?
This debate echoes another, similar one that took place here on The Lunch Tray last November. At that time, First Lady Michelle Obama had just announced that the Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) would join the Partnership for a Healthier America to help promote fruits and vegetables to kids. Under the deal, which Mrs. Obama helped broker, PMA’s growers, suppliers and retailers are allowed to use for two years iconic characters such as Elmo and Big Bird in messaging and on produce sold in stores — without paying any licensing fees.
In that case, too, both the CCFC and Simon felt that any marketing to children was wrong, even for fruits and vegetables. But as I wrote in “It’s OK, Let Elmo Be a Carrot Pusher,” I don’t believe junk food will ever disappear from our society, nor do I believe that our elected officials will impose meaningful curbs on the marketing of junk food to children any time soon. And we also know that currently only one in five high schoolers are getting the recommended “five servings a day” of produce.
Given those hard realities, and given that I will always be more of a realist than an idealist, I’m willing to let people like Dunn try to beat the junk food industry at its own game and use the same tactics to draw children to healthier food. And with respect to the flavorings per se, is the addition of a chile lime spice mix so very different from offering kids carrots with ranch dressing or hummus,or making sweetened yogurt- or sour cream-based dips for fruit — all time-honored, mom-approved techniques for getting kids to eat more produce?
But what do you think, TLT’ers? Are you disturbed by the use of Doritos-style marketing and flavoring to entice kids to eat baby carrots? Or are you, like me, wondering if you can get your hands on this product at your local grocery store? Let me hear what you have to say in a comment below.
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