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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/14/10

Marketing Message: Hey, Michelle...

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Message Susan Benjamin

No question: Michelle Obama's initiative to end childhood obesity is timely. Today, about 17% of children 2-19 years old are obese and roughly 36% of adolescents and teens are overweight. Around 30% don't have family mealtime and many substitute stable dinners with fast food "meals" such as Chick-fill-a's chicken fillet with a "side dish" of, say, waffle fries.

No doubt, pairing two dishes of questionable nutritional value as a "meal" was the brainchild of some marketer. And, doubtless, they intended to alleviate parents of guilt about feeding their kids a fast-food fix and not the real thing. This gets to the heart of Michelle Obama's biggest nightmare: marketers have hijacked the food and fitness universe, derailing the attempts of policy-makers, nutritionists, and folks-who-truly-care to make real and permanent change.

It's important to remember that marketing is probably the single strongest influence in our culture. People encounter thousands of marketing messages a day: they're displayed at doctors' offices, embedded in movies, stuck on Web pages, slipped into bank statements, and reflected in blogs. Their influence has infiltrated our schools, clinics, kitchens, and stomachs.

In the food universe, the avalanche of marketing messages is chillingly one-sided: according to author and expert Michael Pollan, 95% promote processed foods. And, like all marketing messages, their power lies at a subliminal level. For example, marketers know that people respond to messaging pre-consciously, in less time than it takes to blink an eye. At the moment of impact, whether through a color, scent, sound or combination of all the above, the message triggers an emotional and visceral response in the audience: they feel happy, secure, trusting, aroused, or relaxed.

General Mills, for instance, is now placing green check marks on their cereal boxes, part of a "Smart Choices" program sponsored by 10 major food producers. According to a company press release, "Reflecting its support of a national initiative designed to promote public health, General Mills soon will feature a new nutrition labeling system on its packaging." And who merits the green check? They tell us, ""virtually all Big G cereals, including all kid cereals." Namely Lucky Charms, Trix, and Cocoa Puffs.

Lest you doubt their intentions, they say: "Kids love the taste and it's the only leading line of kids cereals to have at least eight grams of whole grain and a good source of calcium in every serving." Who knew marshmallows, sugar, corn syrup, and, oh, did I forget, chocolate, could be so good?

But the check hardly needs an explanation. The unsuspecting consumer sees the green, representing all that is good and pure (think Al Gore, the Green Movement, fresh vegetables), and the check, a universal symbol for passing muster, and the trigger gets tripped. The good feeling is enduring, creating a "halo" effect that shapes the next step in the consumers' decision-making process: thought. While reason may tell them any food with colors and textures unknown in the natural world can't be good, the pre-set feeling indicates otherwise.

Other triggers include a highlighted "0" on the labels such as Dunkin' Donuts who promises "O trans-fats" and Coca-Cola whose "0" calories is so pronounced, they've even named one of their diet drinks after it. Family physician and fitness advocate Mark Cucazzella calls this phenomenon "reductionism." If a product doesn't have something bad, then it must be good. Follow that logic and a snack of diet soda and sugar glazed doughnuts is a healthy option.

We shouldn't be overly simplistic in terms of how marketers operate, of course. They work on numerous levels simultaneously. General Mills cereals, for example, have a "Box Tops for Education" where they tell parents, "You can earn cash for your kid's school." This taps feelings of belonging (to the school community); reciprocity (giving back to the school); and social acceptance (if the school's involved, it must be good).

Perhaps the greatest challenge for health advocates is marketers' ability to repurpose products as consumer demand and First Lady initiatives - requires. Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, points out that problem foods are adept at reinventing themselves as solutions. General Mills isn't alone on the cereal front: Kellogg's bills Froot Loops as a fiber-rich food thanks to the recent addition of oat fibers - although the cereal doesn't contain actual fruit pieces. I guess Froot Loops' mascot Toucan Sam was only kidding when he said, "Follow my nose! It always knows! The flavor of fruit! Wherever it grows!"

Other foods posture as healthy eats. See "granola bar" and you think nutritious, right? Yet, best selling brands, such Quaker Oats granola bars, contain such ingredients as partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils with TBHQ to preserve freshness, sugar, corn syrup, artificial flavor, and BHT. If the bar contains chocolate, add in chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. Just because a food has oats, doesn't mean it's healthy. But then, just because a food has "Quaker" in its name (triggering associations with quality and stability) doesn't mean it's affiliated with true Quakers (as in The Society of Friends), including PepsiCo owned Quaker Oats.

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Biography Communications expert, author, and entrepreneur Susan F. Benjamin is founder of Greater Voice Enterprises. Her short features and interviews with everyone from Hollywood celebrities to leading thinkers are aired online and on am/fm (more...)
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