December 15, 2013

Let’s Co-Opt Powerful Food Marketing Strategies to Help Parents Raise Healthier Eaters

By Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD, FAAP

When my son turned 3, we took a big gamble for his birthday “treat” at preschool. We didn’t bring cupcakes, brownies, or cookies. We didn’t even bring 100% fruit popsicles or juice. Instead, the night before his birthday my veggie-hating child and I sat down together, cutting up pineapple, broccoli, and cherry tomatoes; arranging blackberries, blueberries, and black olives; and generally having a great time getting ready for his birthday together. I smiled big but secretly fretted. Was I setting my son up to be the laughing stock of his preschool? Would he even eat his own birthday snack?

Our concoction turned into a beautiful array of Sesame Street characters – a blueberry and blackberry Cookie Monster, pineapple Big Bird, cherry tomato Elmo, broccoli and olive Oscar the Grouch. The experiment was a success. The three- and four-year-olds, my son included, were eager to gobble up their Sesame Street friends. This test capitalized on what even the most novice food marketers know well – the way to a child’s mouth is through his heart – in particular with beloved characters, sure to make any given food more exciting.

Unfortunately, this insight typically goes towards marketing unhealthy food, with 98% of food ads for kids consisting of pure junk. A recent report from Yale Rudd Center found that in 2012, the fast food industry spent $4.6 billion marketing mostly unhealthy product to kids. Unlike other developed and wealthy nations, the U.S. has done disgustingly little to regulate manipulative advertising to kids, and despite bold promises to self-regulate, the food industry has done a lousy job.

In an effort to counter junk food marketing, last month Let’s Move joined with Sesame Street to announce a campaign to promote fresh fruits and vegetables to kids. Starting in mid-2014, the Produce Marketing Association and its growers, suppliers, and retailers will get to use the Sesame Street characters’ likeness to promote fresh fruits and vegetables!

My own mini-experiment and real peer-reviewed research suggest that this strategy will work! For example, one study showed that simply placing an Elmo sticker on an apple doubled the number of kids who would choose an apple over cookies. By rearranging vegetables and fruits in a way that appeals to kids’ imaginations, an “I-won’t-touch-anything-green” kid eagerly reached over to take a bit of the dirty, grouchy, and oh-so-loveable broccoli Oscar at my son’s birthday party.

As pediatricians and vocal advocates in the media and online, we need to not only continue to push for commonsense restrictions on advertising to kids and put pressure on celebrities, corporations, and organizations who engage in tactics to get our kids to prefer junk but also support efforts to promote healthy foods, such as Let's Move's partnership with Elmo and Rosita.

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD, FAAP practices general pediatrics at Pediatric Medical Associates in Vista, California and is Healthcare Solutions Director at the American Council on Exercise. She is author of the book “Eat Your Vegetables! and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters” (Healthy Learning, 2012) which aims to help empower parents to set their kids up for lifelong healthy habits, without the mealtime battles.