Me eat vegetable

Cookie Monster wants your children to cut down on his namesake treats and start snacking on baby carrots and clementines instead.

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the children’s TV show, and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) have partnered to create Eat Brighter, an initiative aimed at curbing childhood obesity. Sunkist, one of the country’s largest citrus brands, joins the effort in late October, launching a line of navel oranges and mandarins in Sesame Street-themed packaging.

“We are particularly excited to be a part of this initiative with PMA and Sesame Workshop because it offers our industry the opportunity to join together to, hopefully, spur greater change than any one of our companies could effect on their own,” said Kevin Fiori, vice president of sales and marketing for Sunkist.

The goal of the initiative is to compete with producers of cookies and chips by deploying the same marketing strategies these foods use. Sesame Workshop will license characters such as Big Bird, Elmo and Cookie Monster to fruit and vegetable suppliers free of charge for two years. Such deals would usually be worth millions of dollars to Sesame Workshop, according to Putnam, who is on the task force that designed the program.

“We know that telling people to eat healthier doesn’t work, but inspiring them emotively and using some of the tactics of the junk food industry … is a much more successful strategy,” said Todd Putnam, chief commercial officer of Bolthouse Farms, another produce supplier signed up to use the Sesame Street brand on its packaging.

The initiative was announced in October 2013 and the first products hit the shelves earlier this year. In the late spring, East Coast Fresh, a produce packager and distributor in Maryland, introduced pre-cut fruits and vegetables labeled with Sesame Street characters. Bolthouse Farms will be launching Eat Brighter-branded baby carrots in January 2015.

So far, about 25 companies have signed the licensing agreement to use Sesame Street branding on their products.

“We have applications coming in every day now,” said Meg Miller, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association. “The program is really picking up speed.”

Converting kids from cookies to carrots

There is strong evidence that the marketing of food to children is effective, though questions remain as to whether these strategies will work as well for fruits and vegetables as they do for chips and cookies.

“The best evidence we have that it’s working is that companies spend $1.6bn every year on food marketing to children,” said Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

The science seems to back up these marketing practices. A 2009 study at Yale found that exposure to food advertising during television viewing makes children eat up to 45% more snack food compared to children who did not watch ads. Harris also points to other research that has shown that branding food makes children believe it tastes better. The use of characters in marketing has been shown to increase the appeal of fruits and vegetables and junk food alike.

However, using character-based marketing to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption may be more challenging than using similar tactics to promote sugary and salty snacks. Although studies have indicated the character branding works on both produce and less healthy snacks, that effect wasn’t as strong for the healthier foods, she said.

“Kids aren’t born liking the taste of vegetables,” she said. “I believe it would be much more difficult to market healthier food to kids.”

Putnam is confident that obstacle can be overcome, he said, pointing to research that suggests children can adapt to new foods in as few as five exposures.

Is all advertising to children bad?

For some critics, however, the question of whether the initiative will be effective is secondary to whether these tactics should be used at all.

Children already live in an advertising-saturated world, argues Josh Golin, associate director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. They don’t need another campaign urging them to respond positively to characters and emotional pleas, especially when these techniques are more often used to sell unhealthy foods, he said.

“If we tell kids to eat based on what characters tell you to eat, it’s not a winning battle in the long run,” he said. “From the perspective of overall wellbeing, we really need to try and reverse the sway that characters have over kids.”

Brian Wilcox, a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, draws a distinction between the sort of marketing the Eat Brighter campaign employs and advertising in which characters deliver a direct pitch. Such advertising depends on young children’s inability to distinguish promotional media from entertainment or information, he noted. Including a character’s image on fruit or vegetable packaging, however, creates a positive emotional association in pursuit of a healthy behavior.

“That is a very different process and that’s much more acceptable from my standpoint,” Wilcox said. “I am willing to use the tools of marketing when they can benefit the wellbeing of kids.”

Putnam recognizes the concerns people might have about targeting children with commercial messages. But he argues that the health problems caused by childhood obesity are worrisome enough that all available tools should be used to combat them. Using marketing to promote healthy foods is not the only answer, he said, but is an important part of tackling the issue.

“I have a solution that I know works,” Putnam said. “It’s hard for me to say no to that.”

This story originally appeared on on October 4, 2014. Click here to see story and a poll about marketing to children.