Last week PepsiCo's Frito-Lay got a lot of attention -- not all of it positive -- for its new 'Lay's Local' marketing campaign.
TV spots are debuting in California, Michigan, Florida, Texas and other markets with farmers from each individual state making statements like, "Next time you grab a bag of Lay's in Michigan, think of us." The campaign aims to celebrate local connections, put a face on the potato farmers who supply Frito-Lay, and even let consumers find out where each individual bag of potato chips was produced.
"Local" food is trendy right now -- perhaps the hottest trend for 2009, according to the National Restaurant Association. In some cases, the demand for local food is outstripping the supply. But the original proponents of the local food movement certainly weren't thinking of companies like Frito-Lay.
"Large corporations peddling junk food are the exact opposite of what this is about," Jessica Prentice, the food writer who originally coined the phrase 'locavore,' told the New York Times.
And, as a writer on BrandFreak put it, most of the potatoes are "still grown on industrial farms, which are on the opposite end of the spectrum from the rugged, individualistic American farmers they [Frito-Lay] claim to support."
In Frito-Lay's defense, the company is not using the term 'locally grown' to describe its chips. Obviously the company aims to sell potato chips even in states that don't grow potatoes; the idea is merely to emphasize the farmers and make the company seem more personal and friendly. "This is celebrating the notion of community," a Frito-Lay marketing VP said.
Tom Laskawy at Grist speculated that the campaign is as much about food safety as it is about sustainability and the local movement. "The multitude of recent food [contamination] scandals have caused consumers to question the quality and security of processed food," he said. An ad campaign with smiling, wholesome individual farmers might prove reassuring.
Other companies have used similar techniques -- ConAgra ships its Hunt's canned tomatoes all over the place, but a recent campaign tried to get local cred out of the fact that the tomatoes are processed close to where they're grown.
"The ingenuity of the food manufacturers and marketers never ceases to amaze me," author and food industry critic Michael Pollan told the New York Times. "They can turn any critique into a new way to sell food. You've got to hand it to them."
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Frito-Lay also recently announced a program to collect old chip bags and use the materials to make products like purses, pencil cases and tote bags. As far as exploiting trends goes, that initiative seems much more promising than merely using an ad campaign to highlight a cherry-picked group of potato farmers.