Thursday, July 17, 2008

Safeway's plan to target kids has parents asking "What's up, Doc?"

When my kids were young, we used to have a yearly event called Bad Food Weekend. One of us would take the kids to the supermarket and buy all the foods we saw advertised on television in between and blended in to the Saturday morning cartoons. We’d sample everything from fruit snacks that spurted out blue goo to cereals whose main ingredients were sugar and chemicals (with a vague reference to grains), to curly cheese doodles that turn your hands orange for a day. Usually by Saturday afternoon the girls had decided that 90% of the stuff was disgusting and one parent or the other was asked to make “a real meal.” Unfortunately, one year some nieces and nephews participated in the event, never reached the same gross-out point, and continued to ask for Sugar Coated Marshmallow Goodness in a Box for months afterward. My sister never forgave me -- I’m sure she’s sending her now-in-college son care packages full of carrots and whole wheat muffins just to counteract any lingering effects of that weekend long ago.

It’s easy to alarm parents (especially mothers) about getting kids to eat healthy foods. No surprise, as there’s more than a hundred years of "expert" advice – from the government, social service agencies, scientists, nutritionists, politicians, and of course, food companies --- telling women how to feed their families. And now, with fears of a fat nation starting in kindergarten, salmonella in your tomatoes, and Ronald McDonald as an exercise guru, the level of anxiety that must go into every meal is profound. Food vigilance is an around-the-clock job. In the last ten years, the obesity epidemic rhetoric has gotten fierce, starting with scientists at the Centers for Disease Control showing color coded maps of a creeping wave of fatness across the USA to Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me for kids. Whether you blame sedentary lifestyles, an out-of-control food industry, a lack of grocery stores and fresh produce in poor urban and rural areas, or parents (moms, really) who don’t make home cooked meals, it’s hard to ignore the statistics about type 2 diabetes in American children. Whether any of this warrants the label “epidemic,” there’s no question that the food industry knows it needs to start selling as much function as fun in their product lines.

So, it’s no surprise that Safeway, which like many supermarkets, food companies, and fast food chains, has launched a health kids set of meals and food products designed to ease parental guilt. Not a bad thing, you think, especially since one major complaint is that families do need guidance as to what counts as nutritional and healthy food. But unwilling to leave well enough alone, the new line will be packaged with Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Warner Brothers cartoon gang. According to Promo Magazine,

Warner Bros. chairman-CEO Barry Meyer said the deal is a way to turn its well-known cartoon characters into "ambassadors of health and fitness." He said the partnership "allows us to utilize the Looney Tunes characters' enduring popularity with kids and teens to promote a lifestyle choice that's healthier for them."
I wish I’d come across this story when I was writing the post about unbelievably bad marketing strategies, because it tops all the ones I’d mentioned. Like Sears hooking up with LL Cool J, there are some retail identities and pop culture items that really should be kept in separate rooms, locked away from one another. Otherwise we’ll end up with some crazy public service ads with the round green hero Shrek, (who’s been a fast food toy at least twice) promoting exercise. Oh wait, it’s been done.

(So do you think they'll use Porky Pig to promote the Soy Bacon Lettuce and Tomato Sandwich?)

To distinguish this campaign from the last thirty years of cartoon characters splashed across every imaginable kind of junk food, Bugs and his buddies are now exclusively featured on the Eating Right Kids line of food. Because Daffy, Taz, and Bugs are free of all that crass commercialism. Right?

Th-th-th-th-that’s all Folks….

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