Should Kids’ Cartoons Sell Fruit & Veggies? Brandwashing Revisited

more matters monthSept. 16, 2009 Erma Bombeck once said, “My children refuse to eat anything that hasn’t danced on TV.”

Quick! Mind snap: Did you blink to California Raisins boogieing to “Heard it Through the Grapevine?” If so, you’ve been ‘brandwashed’ by that award-winning iconic campaign from FCB so long ago…

Next week on Sept. 21, two familiar icons and two slogans will be voted into Madison Avenue’s ‘Advertising Walk of Fame’ by the general public which will include plaques and banner waving fanfare between 42nd & 50th St. in NYC. I’m pulling for the healthy raisins and the Jolly Green Giant (except you only get to vote once, sorry big green guy, raisins got me first)

If this feels like one of those made-up Hallmark holidays or polling ploys to win mindshare and brand boost a tad, you can bet your bippy you’re right. But it’s all in good fun and part of pop culture touchpoints, right? Is that so bad? Especially since new icons are being seeded to sell fruit?

I just saw Sesame Street characters on locally farmed strawberries at Costco…then heard about the licensing deal with Strawberry Shortcake cut w/American Greetings to promote Produce for Better Health and tie in with National Fruits & Veggies – More Matters month. (yes, yet another arcane marketing celebration you’ve probably never heard of)

So will there be licensing battles of who owns what fruit or veggie now? Sigh.

Disney Banana Flashback to this post, Coaxing Kids with Cartoon Characters I wrote way back in 2006 about Disney testing  licensing and fruit…

Or this one, Using Marketing Methods to ‘Sell’ Kids Healthier Food

You’ll see I’m conflicted a between ‘better for you’ branding and ‘branding at all’…

The downside of fruit/veggie branding?

Womb to tomb commercialism, ad creep, every inch of neutral turf branded:  I wrote,  “Babies barely able to mumble ‘mama’ are being brand-driven from the get-go. It’s downright eery to see an infant reach out to a cartoon character for comfort. Or wee ones that can’t walk or talk yet tug and grunt for a brand.”

The upside? ‘More matters’—If it gets kids to eat more fruit & veggies, there’s a BIG plus in setting healthy habits early on.

I wrote:

“All the cartoon biggies are now entering the ‘good for you’ game… Nickelodeon. Disney. Warner Bros. Sesame Workshop. They’re licensing characters for grapes, pears and produce faster than you can say smoothie…

…Parents want to urge kids to eat right, so they’ll no doubt buy into the cartoon concept and skyrocket the sales. It’s happening already. Last year, SpongeBob and Dora boosted clementines 25%.”

strawberryI checked in with some industry parents, advisory colleagues and other middle-grounders and found that even over the few years since I wrote that post, licensed characters have become such a part of the retail/urban wallpaper that many responded along the lines of,

“Well, I’d rather see ‘em on strawberries than kids’ cologne or chem-cuisine…”

Others like our own healthy habits nutrition guru Rebecca Scritchfield or gaming researcher and advergaming watchdog Sara M. Grimes who keeps a keen eye on commercialism online  see a vast improvement of the mind-shifting going from baked sweets to natural sweets…

Sara Grimes writes in Using Strawberry to Sell Strawberries:

“This might seem like such a no-brainer, but it also finally remedies something that has frustrated me about Strawberry Shortcake ever since her relaunch a couple of years ago. Here, we have a perfect little group of ambassadors for better eating – characters based on fruit-based pastries that could easily be “updated” to focus on fruit instead of baked goods, but for some reason never have been…

I’ve never met a kid who didn’t love berries (though I’m sure they exist), and am encouraged by how easy it would be to promote all kinds of wonderfully healthy foods by a simple addition of blueberries or strawberry slices.

The fruits themselves are jam packed with vitamins, and set a great precedent for fruit and veggie eating of all kinds. Great move on the part of both American Greetings and Cookie Jar. Now all we have to do is drop the “Shortcake” and maybe see a few episodes that don’t offer “baking delicious cakes” as the only way to save the day 😉 “

Fair enough…but I guess I still go back to accountability in the creation of this beg-fest and child-centric pester power play…

Sure, it IS better that licensed characters are being used on FRESH berries over ‘Wiggles’ fruit snacks and frankenfruit rollup crud…And yes, there IS more FTC oversight, awareness and industry responsibility to create ‘healthier’ foods, which is a double thumbs up here…BUT it seems we’re in an awkward position of ‘cleaning up a mess’ made by marketing that shouldn’t have taken place to begin with.

If we think we can persuade volume intake of fruits and vegetables via characters and licensing deals to shift behavior and cyclebreak for healthier habits and long term change, then I guess I’d reiterate my thoughts of the first post, namely,

“Okay. Then let’s remove all of the grinning critters and gizmos from all of the sugary cereals and snack slop so they’re ONLY on fruit and veggies, otherwise, consumers are just being hammered by more cartoons on more products to get more kids to power whine and pester parents in new places.

…The produce aisle used to be the only ‘safe zone’ to navigate a cart without watching some toddler toss a hissy for cartoon packaging of some kind.”

That’s something worth tossing into the media mix before we yell ‘hurray’ too loudly on all the ‘smarter choices’ and ‘better for you’ foods hitting the market.

Where do you stand?

Are you in the ‘whatever works’ camp of using branding as a means to an end? Or are you in the CCFC marketing to kids is not a given, “leave ‘em alone, keep ‘em out of it” quadrant? Personally?

I’m berry, berry conflicted.

more matters veggies



  1. Same here. My reaction to the Strawberry Shortcake campaign gears towards the slightly positive, but I would definitely rather not see any food (or other) marketing to kids whatsoever. That the character at the heart of this particular campaign is the very character who first innovated program-length commercials (hence Englehardt’s term “Strawberry Shortcake Strategy”) is also no coincidence. The children’s industries see the current movement to ban unhealthy food advertising to children as an opportunity to further expand their reach into kids’ (and parents’) lives, and get a bit of good press in the process.

    But I’m forever trying to temper my general disapproval of character branding with an appreciation for the meaning that kids themselves attach to these characters, as well as the need for critics to acknowledge progress within kids’ commercial culture…no matter how small.

    I suppose I’m thinking about my own criticisms of Strawberry Shortcake’s longstanding emphasis on sweets and treats, which I blogged about some time ago here:

    Seeing as I found the previous (and, i’d be willing to bet, continued) emphasis on the caring=deserts so disturbing, I feel a bit accountable myself here to admit that an emphasis on fruits and healthy living (one hopes) is at least an improvement. But alas, you’re very right, it’s very far from representing a meaningful change in dominant marketing practices.

    .-= Sara M. Grimes´s last blog ..Canadian Copyright Reform =-.

  2. Thanks, Sara, like everything I feel it’s ‘baby steps’ towards championing change in a wider, mass media mindshift.

    I guess I prefer to focus on the ‘we’re getting there’ approach in part to keep from deep-sixing my enthusiasm and plodding forward through what feels like tidal waves of attempting a sea change…

    So I totally agree with you…it’s dicey to get absolutist about stuff especially when there’s so much squishy room and some very STRONG financial incentives for marketers to ‘shape up’ and do the right thing.

    As I posted in this one “Fast food chains are slowly getting healthier” I guess I see the half glass/half full apporach…

    Again, baby steps! If we don’t APPLAUD WILDLY and support these efforts when corporations inch toward common goals where’s the incentive for sustainable change?

    Totally agree with you. 🙂
    .-= Amy Jussel´s last blog ..Using Digital Hide & Seek To Get Kids Outside: A Treasure Trove of Ideas =-.

  3. Really conflicted as well – what a great, thought-provoking post.

    I guess the issue comes down to whether a love for fruit is leading to a brand awareness of Strawberry Shortcake…or whether a love for the character is leading to a love of the fruit. I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, in which case I can’t really complain too much. Besides, branding isn’t new – I mean, even the Chiquita Banana logo or the Sunkist logo that’s been on the produce forever is marketing, right?

    We have such youth dietary issues in the country, that if it takes the world of licensed characters to get kids to eat better or lends more money for the produce trade to promote itself more effectively, I’m going to say the end justifies the means.
    .-= Mom101´s last blog ..OMG OMG OMG. In other words, the OMG post. =-.

  4. Tx, Mom 101…loved your post on Dora, too! (FB’d it, tweeted, etc. and it’s raised the ire of many of us!) Your commentary was pithy and your readers ready to take the baton…great fun. 😉

    Anyway, on this one, yah, I agree, we’ve had that stuff, you’re right, but the mass market commercialism is upping the ante…and I’m with you on the ‘whatever works’ methodology, but there’s a side of me that says ‘whoa horse’ when it comes to the brands duking out who owns the veggies and fruit and such, as they license their characters to sell the kids on health. 😉 Ultimately, I have concerns about the whole cradle to grave issue of recognizing/empathisizing with familiar faces/brands as opposed to fruit for fruits’ sake…

    But our health care/medico mess is so abyssmal right now, I’m definitely in the ‘whatever works to turn the tanker around’ trendsetting right now it seems…sigh. So I’d have to agree with you in the short term anyway, and at least ‘test the waters’ so to speak. Ultimately, I wish they’d leave the freakin’ whole foods alone! 🙂
    .-= Amy Jussel´s last blog ..Using Digital Hide & Seek To Get Kids Outside: A Treasure Trove of Ideas =-.

  5. I agree, we’ve had that stuff

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