Food fight: Marketing healthy snacks like junk food

(CBS News) As we head into the holiday season, we'll soon be headed to the holiday food table, too. Experts have been worried for years that our waistlines are expanding with our ever-expanding desire for sweet, salty, and often fat-laden goodies. But how can lowly fruits and vegetables ever compete with the design, engineering, and especially the marketing of processed food? Lee Cowan reports our Cover Story:

Consider for a moment the carrot. And, if you can, ignore that it's healthy and comes out of the ground.

What's left is a food that's snackable, crunchable, somewhat addictive -- and, yes, neon orange.

From a marketing standpoint, the carrot is really not all that different from a Cheeto. At least, that's what the head of Bolthouse Farms seems to think, going by its ad, "Baby Carrots. Now in extreme junk food packaging!"

"Our first campaign for baby carrots was, 'Eat 'em like junk food,'" laughed Jeffrey Dunn, Bolthouse's self-described "Chief Carrot Officer." "We went right at junk food and said, we don't wanna be against junk food, we wanna be like 'em."

A Bolthouse TV ad shows a sexy woman enjoying the delights of munching on a tiny vegetable. "Oh, baby . . . carrot!"

Dunn knows all about junk food marketing. His prior job was as an executive at Coca-Cola.

"Coke has done an amazing job of creating that moment of refreshment that's -- you know, you can picture it when I say it," he told Cowan. "That's marketing. We've got to do the same good job for fresh fruits and vegetables. And there's no reason we can't."

But he knows it's an uphill battle -- and so does the White House. First lady Michelle Obama has said, "The deck is stacked against healthy foods like fruits and vegetables."

To help level the playing field, Obama recently announced that Sesame Workshop would license their Muppet characters -- for FREE -- to the Produce Marketing Association. Muppets Elmo and Rosita appeared with the first lady to promote broccoli.

Last year, advertising for fruits and vegetables amounted to $116 million. That may sound like a lot, but it's only 1/20th of what was spent on advertising junk food to kids.

Few look at that disparity with such a critical an eye as New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss. He won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the meat industry, including the widespread use of "pink slime" -- that unappetizing material found in some processed beef, including burgers served in school lunches.

And yet, despite unpleasant revelations like that, Moss says fruits and vegetables still have trouble competing.

"As well-meaning as it is, the government message -- that you should be eating more fruits and vegetables 'cause it's better for you, 'cause it's healthy -- isn't working," Moss.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says two-thirds of adults and one-third of children in America are either overweight or obese.

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