by Marion Nestle
Oct 19 2007

Eating Liberally: Cartoons on Healthy Foods?

My Eating Liberally question this week is about whether is makes sense to put cartoons on vegetable packages to encourage kids to eat more healthfully. I think not, of course, but here’s Disney doing just that. Is this a reasonable strategy? Weigh in please.

  • What packages? Vegetables don’t need packages. 😉

  • I propose that parents take their kids to the farmers market and introduce them to the real heroes behind the food–it would be a nice little Saturday for all

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  • It rarely makes sense for people to use expensive marketing techniques on genuinely healthy foods, because real foods have such short value-addition chains, and a robust value chain usually indicated a “edible product” rather than a genuine “food.” It sure seems to me that packaging tricks are about branding, and real food shouldn’t really be branded in the first place.

    But if you COULD get funding in some way other than brand-marketing to market healthy foods or eating habits (from a charity say, or a government agency) it would make total sense to have cartoons be an element of the promotion strategy. If Disney wanted to cut some kind of deal to extend a few of their older copyrights (like to Mickey Mouse, say) yet again, in return for extensive public service use of the copyrighted material, that could be a very good deal for Disney. Contrariwise, if the government finally lets Disney’s early characters enter the public domain, (way over due by any sane standard), they might be very appropriate icons for foods that can’t afford more expensive marketing gimmicks. Superman is getting close to the public domain too right? Imagine Superman taking a bushel of food from his adoptive parents in farmer outfits, with the caption, “Be a Hero Buy Local Produce: its good for you and good for the community.” You could put it on billboards or in kids magazines. It might be quite powerful and effective. Heck DC might give permission for something like that pretty cheap, even before it enters public domain.

    -Brian M.

  • Sheila

    I agree with Anna and Gravel. Veggies don’t need packages, in fact, the ones I grow don’t ever seem to grow packages. And the ones I see in farmers markets are too beautiful to hide in a package.
    I prefer to bring a large, old basket to collect my purchases from the farmers market or the harvest from my garden. It is part of enjoying the food to see the combination of colors and textures.
    Instead of cartoons, perhaps we could interest the children in a tasting of 10 or 12 different colors of freshly-harvested heirloom cherry tomatoes or peppers or salad greens. The baby mesclun mix has to look more inviting to them than insipid iceberg lettuce. Carrots come in several sizes and shapes, and beets and radishes come in swirled varieties now. I think if we introduced shildren to the real thing, fresh colorful flavorful veggies, instead of canned or tasteless, they would like what they experience. The children in my family also find it “magic” to grow some of their own. No cartoons needed. Mud included at no extra charge.

  • This is a tough one. Our kids are marketed to so incessantly that even the most sheltered children can end up wanting branded food and toys. And while that’s certainly not an attitude a lot of parents want to encourage, I imagine for lots of people it’s the lesser of two evils: buying the overpriced Mickey Mouse carrot sticks to keep the kids away from the Sponge Bob potato chips. Perhaps the branded veggies can be viewed as a stepping-stone along the way to healthier eating and eschewing branded processed foods? While teaching kids about advertising and healthy eating is obviously a huge priority, there is a disconnect between the age at which advertisers start targeting them and the age at which such a discussion would be understandable. So maybe for the interim, Disney veggie snacks could be appropriate for those kids who insist on branded foods?

  • Daniel Ithaca, NY

    Though I don’t like the idea of excess packaging or in the single brand promotion, I do think there could be much work done in the area of marketing of actual healthy products/habits to kids, i.e. produce,whole grains, eating habits that are more plant-based, breakfast. The ads could be in the schools, on tv/radio/internet and even in the supermarket in the produce section for example. I’m working with GreenStar Cooperative Outreach here and through another organization had Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me) to have a photo shoot to promote healthy foods. Posters will be made and put into elementary schools–those who request them.
    If it works for the other industries, why not healthy foods too?

  • Colleen

    I agree that veggies don’t need advertising. They need promotion through regular use by families at home and attending locales that sell local produce. My son’s preschool has one staff member who routinely attends our public market to buy local (and sometimes citrus in winter) fruits to provide to the children at meals and snack.

    I also advocate not having TV! My younger children have noticed the cartoon faces at the grocery, and my older ones are now starting to say, “but that’s not a healthy food, right?”