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Let ‘Em Eat Grapes!

Marketers should apply more of their creativity to solving the childhood obesity problem than they do contributing to it.

On any given day, the result of an Internet search of the term “kids marketing” is dominated by links to web sites and news stories about children and obesity.

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That is just so sad — and so revealing about where marketing’s energies tend to focus. One would hope that “kids marketing” would turn up all kinds of cool campaigns that actually help kids lead better lives somehow. Not a chance.

Accuse me of not looking hard enough, but in the more than nine years I’ve scoured daily newspapers and other periodicals in search of what’s innovative — or merely interesting — in marketing, I can only remember finding one news article about a major marketing campaign that truly took kids’ health to heart.

That was a story by Tara Parker-Pope in the September 6, 2006, edition of The Wall Street Journal, about a campaign called Verb, which was designed to get kids to exercise. Part of the campaign involved television commercials, but its centerpiece was a half a million, six-inch yellow rubber-balls, imprinted with the word “verb” and distributed to kids, primarily via schools and camps.

The kids were supposed to play with the ball, blog about the experience, and then give the ball to friend. According to the Journal, a follow-up “study of more than 2,700 school kids … showed that 9 and 10 year-old kids who had seen the Verb campaign reported one-third more physical activity during their free time than kids who hadn’t seen Verb.”

Verb was as imaginative as it was effective — so much so that it earned Arc Worldwide, the agency behind it, an award at Cannes earlier this year.

Unfortunately, however, Verb apparently is now in the past tense. Sponsored by the U.S. government — specifically, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — Verb’s initial $336 million budget was not renewed by Congress. Some efforts were made to get backing from big corporations and sports organization, but as far as I’ve been able to determine, that hasn’t happened.

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Instead, we have more and more of the usual run of stories about kids and the obesity epidemic. For example, topping a search of “kids marketing” stories recently was an article from The Wall Street Journal about a research study by the University of Liverpool, which suggested a rather strong connection between what kids watch on television and what they eat as a result.

The study was of two groups of kids, ages 5-11 who watched 10 ads, followed by a cartoon. One group saw ads for toys, while the other group saw ads for food. The kids were then offered a spread of snacks, ranging from healthy to junky.The 5-7 year-olds who saw the food ads ate “14 percent to 17 percent more calories” than the kids who saw the toy ads. Among 9-11 year-olds, the caloric intake was “84 percent to 134 percent higher.”

Naturally, the overweight kids ate more of the “sugary, high-fat foods.” The only good news here, according to the report, is that “kids’ consumption of healthy foods, such as grapes … also jumped after seeing food ads.”

Whether this study can be considered conclusive is debatable, but its findings certainly seem obvious and predictable. Advertising is supposed to motivate consumption, after all … and it’s always comforting to see advertising work as it is advertised.

However, despite advertising’s apparent effectiveness among kids in this study, no reasonable person could blame advertisers for single-handedly turning our kids into “plumpkins.” That would be untrue; the obesity problem is much more complicated than that. But wouldn’t it be great if the brightest minds in the marketing business applied more of their creative talents to solving the childhood obesity problem than they do contributing to it?

A big part of the problem is that we, as adults, tend to underestimate kids (actually we, as marketers, tend to underestimate people in general). But the Verb campaign shows that kids are, in fact, eager to have fun with a ball if we encourage that. The Liverpool study suggests that kids will just as soon eat grapes if that’s what they’re offered.

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In fact, there was a great story in The New York Times about a guy named Timothy Cipriano, who runs the cafeteria at Bloomfield High School in Connecticut. His co-workers were astonished when Timothy unloaded “several bushels of fresh Connecticut corn.”

They thought he had misplaced his mind. They were used to working with the kind of corn that, you know, came in cans. They didn’t think the kids would touch corn with a husk on it. But guess what?

“We steamed it and put it out there,” says Timothy. “The kids shucked it themselves and went crazy for it. We ran out halfway through the first shift.” Witness the power of not underestimating kids.

As for Verb, maybe since Congress has cut off its funding it will at least find its way clear to reform agricultural subsidies, which have been weighted toward crops used to make soft drinks and snack foods and against helping farmers who grow healthy crops like fruits and vegetables.

That may be more of a public policy issue than a marketing issue, although it’s worth noting that the CDC didn’t distinguish between the two, at least for a while. Would that more people in marketing would see it the same way and apply their best creative thinking accordingly.

If they did, the outcome would be just as healthy for the business of marketing as it would be for kids — if for no other reason than it would help increase the lifespan (and therefore the lifetime value) of the average consumer.

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That may sound crass, but at least it’s an improvement over much of what passes for “marketing to kids” today. More importantly, it’s just the right thing to do.