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Will The First Lady’s Sesame Street Campaign Reduce Produce Consumption?

When the White House says it wants to promote your products, you say yes. So it is most wonderful and fortuitous for the produce industry that First Lady Michelle Obama wanted to promote this new initiative in which the Sesame Street characters will be made available, royalty-free to the produce industry.

It is also most decidedly a feather in the cap for the Produce Marketing Association, its CEO Bryan Silbermann, and Jan DeLyser, Vice President of Marketing for the California Avocado Commission and immediate past chairman of PMA’s Board of Directors, that the association was the selected partner for this initiative and that they, personally, got to go the White House and participate in this event with the First Lady.

It was very upbeat and cute, and you can see that a good time was had by all by watching the video:

This being said, there has been a little confusion in the messaging.

First, the press release issued by PMA says that “the agreement allows PMA’s community of suppliers and retailers to take advantage of the strength and influence of the Sesame Street brand and characters like Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Abby Cadabby to help deliver messages about fresh fruits and vegetables.” Although this is true, the statement is incomplete. In fact, the White House insisted that anyone in produce, PMA member or not, must have access to the characters royalty-free.

Second, although Sesame Street is making the characters available royalty-free, it is the intent of PMA to charge an administrative fee. This fee may differentiate between members and non-members. We are not sure about the scale of this fee, but one wonders if it is really necessary or whether it could be just a nominal fee for legal reasons.

Third, it is also unclear what will happen to those members of the produce industry who had already contracted for the use of the Sesame Street characters. In the past, these ranks have included Stemilt and California Giant. It is not clear if any of these arrangements are in effect at this time.

Beyond the details though, and acknowledging that having the First Lady interested in promoting consumption of fruits and vegetables is a win for the industry, also acknowledging that participating in such a promotion when asked by the White House was the right thing for PMA to do, there is something unsettling here.

We can’t help but think that the whole show is a sign of a deeply troubled nation: A nation not serious about confronting its problems, whether that it be nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran or obesity here at home.

The key line in Michelle Obama’s speech was a simple one:

“Just imagine what will happen when we take our kids to the grocery store, and they see Elmo and Rosita and the other Sesame Street Muppets they love up and down the produce aisle.”

The reason we have to “imagine” is because we have no evidence of any positive movement on consumption due to the presence of Sesame Street characters on fresh produce in grocery stores.

The reason we have to “imagine” is because the First Lady did not propose a two-year pilot program done in a small geographic area with a comparable control group. In other words, she didn’t propose hard and serious work to determine if this plan will do any good. She just seized the limelight of being a do-gooder, although we have no reason to think it will do good or increase consumption.

Another key line from the press conference raises an eyebrow among anyone who knows the score:

“Imagine what it will be like to have our kids begging us to buy them fruits and vegetables instead of cookies, candy and chips.”

Alas, we have written extensively about the use of cartoon characters on fresh produce, and though there are pros and cons and wins and losses for certain people and products at certain times and places, there is zero reason to believe that the impact of placing stickers on produce is children “begging us to buy them fruits and vegetables instead of cookies, candy and chips.”

In fact, the very fact that we have to ask whether the Stemilt or California Giant projects with Sesame Street are still active or whether Grimmway is still doing Nickelodeon characters is revealing. Crunch Pak is still doing Disney, but isn’t it a small fraction of its sales? All this shows how low impact these things are. It is highly unlikely that these promotions dramatically boosted sales and were stopped or deemphasized solely because of the license fee. The truth is they didn’t move the needle on sales, much less consumption.

This is not to say that cartoon marketing can’t work. It certainly can. Some have posited a distinction between authentic equity and borrowed equity. So Bugs Bunny might help with carrots, Popeye with spinach and Cookie Monster with, well, cookies but simply slapping random characters on rutabagas is unlikely to boost sales or consumption.

And, of course, individual companies can still profit with this technique. Crunch Pak was unusual as a market leader to seize the rights to the Disney characters. It can sometimes be useful to a leader to have a second brand. Maybe Crunch Pak can give Publix an exclusive on its other products if it can give Winn-Dixie the Disney label. Still, we suspect that it mainly took on the Disney line to avoid any competitor from getting it, which would be very smart because if one is a secondary brand or company, it is hard to get an audience with retailers. Having Disney is something to talk about. So it is probably a win for companies that don’t have the strongest brand in the category to get some well-known brand equity by licensing it.

But these are reasons why individual companies might find value in licensing cartoon characters, not evidence that they increase overall sales and certainly not evidence that they increase consumption.

Plunging ahead without research is not just putting the industry in danger of losing money; it is putting the country in danger of reducing consumption.

Sometimes well-intended things have unintended consequences. Think about the crime of arson for profit – that crime only exists because we have fire insurance. Now think about this idea of spreading Sesame Street characters throughout the produce aisle.

Here is a photo of Jr. Pundit Segundo, aka Matthew, dressed up for Halloween. He was dressed as Chris Andersen, aka “The Birdman,” who is a center for the Miami Heat. We allowed Matthew to get a Mohawk for Halloween on the agreement he got a crew cut the next day.

Now Matthew is all of ten years old, and if you think you are putting an Elmo in his lunch box you’ve got another thing coming. If we ever did such a thing, it would guarantee that the produce would be in the garbage long before his buddies in the lunch room will catch him with it.

In fact, when we asked if this idea of putting Sesame Street characters on produce would encourage kids to eat more, he quickly replied: “Well, maybe it will help with really little kids, but it will make kids my age want to stay away from produce.” Again, he is just ten years old.

Now that is anecdote, not research, and he could be wrong, but so could Michelle Obama, because she literally has nothing more than her personal opinion to hang her hat on.

Just recently we ran a piece titled White House Chef Tells Industry To Try Harder; But He Needs To Check His Facts which critiqued a study cited by White House Chef Sam Kass, Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for White house’s Nutrition Policy regarding the use of Elmo to encourage children to eat broccoli rather than chocolate. We debunked the study by pointing out that it was a study done with cards — nobody ate anything at all — but the truth is that most of the people sitting in that PMA general session, many of whom had actual experience with cartoon marketing, knew the claims never made any sense.

Michelle Obama referenced a different study in her speech. She referenced a more subtle and sophisticated study done by several researchers, including the famed Brian Wansink of Cornell University. This study, titled Can Branding Improve School Lunches, had a better methodology than the study referenced by Sam Kass. It was conducted as follows:

After obtaining institutional review board approval at Cornell University and parental consent, 208 children (99 female) ranging from 8 to 11 years old were recruited from 7 ethnically and economically diverse schools in suburban and rural upstate New York. The study occurred during lunchtime on 5 consecutive days at each location. After selecting their lunch, children were individually offered their usual opportunity to take 1 or both of the last items: an apple and/or cookie.

On the first day of the study, both the apple and the cookie were offered without a sticker, as a pretest control. This enabled us to calibrate a baseline preference for each child. On the last day of the study, both the apple and cookie were offered without a sticker as a posttest control to help us determine if the presence of stickers on the apple had any carryover.

The remaining 3 days were intervention sessions. On one day, children were offered a choice between an unbranded apple and a cookie that had a sticker of a familiar popular character (i.e., Elmo) on it. On another day, children were offered a choice between an unbranded cookie and an apple that had a sticker of the Elmo icon on it. On another day, their choice was between an unbranded cookie and an apple with a sticker of an unknown character.

On each day of the study, each child’s choice was unobtrusively recorded. Children were accustomed to knowing they could not take any lunch food home with them. The majority of children who selected a food ate at least a portion of the food.

Professor Wansink is an expert at producing intellectual candy for those with inquisitive minds. He did famous studies where people ate from a soup bowl that was secretly being refilled and noted how this  impacted the amount consumed. He did a study showing how the shape of bar glasses would impact how much bartenders would pour. He studied plate sizes and their impact on consumption… many extremely interesting things.

Yet, although they gave Professor Wansink a couple years as head of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, this particular study is a very slight foundation on which to build an initiative such as the one announced at the White House.

A quick look at this Elmo, apple and cookie study and one quickly sees why it is not the kind of research that can be properly used to defend the First Lady’s initiative. The first problem is that the study claims more for itself than the text establishes. Here is a chart the researchers published with the study:

So, the first and most obvious problem is the chart is mislabeled. It asserts that it is a study of apple vs cookie CONSUMPTION — but no research was done on consumption at all. This was a study of selection. There is a vague claim that the “majority of children who selected a food ate at least a portion of the food,” which only tells us that, assuming accurate measurements, perhaps 49.9% of the children didn’t eat the food at all, and the ones who did might have eaten almost nothing of the food. It certainly tells us nothing at all about how consumption changed when Elmo was placed on the apples.

This is a big problem. Anyone who has gone through a store with children knows they want lots of things for lots of reasons: The packaging, the TV commercial, what their friends have, etc… none of which has any necessary connection to what the children will select to eat.

Second, the use of apples is limiting. Let us assume for a moment that children really will select and eat products they like more frequently if they have Elmo stickers on them. That might apply to half a dozen fruits. Where from this insight do we rush to assume that covering the whole produce department in Sesame Street characters will increase consumption of arugula?

Third, there was no attempt to study reactions in a supermarket or purchasing environment. Even if all of this is true and meaningful, not being a study of how people react at retail stores means that an inference as to behavior at retail is quite a leap. If this is the study on which the First Lady wishes to hang her hat, the initiative should be about school lunch programs, not supermarket produce departments.

Fourth, the study is over too quickly to determine if all this is a “novelty effect”. The Hawthorne Works was a Western Electric plant near Chicago. They did experiments with lighting and other changes and found that the change itself altered worker behavior. Some research has indicated that it takes eight weeks before a novelty effect decays to a small level: “Clark & Sugrue (1991, p.333) in a review of educational research say that uncontrolled novelty (i.e., halo) effects cause on average 30% of a standard deviation (SD) rise (i.e., 50%-63% score rise), which decays to a small level after 8 weeks.”

Fifth, consumption is more than just a one-moment decision. Surely it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a child who used to eat an apple after school every day, if somehow persuaded to eat one at lunch, might choose to switch her afternoon snack to a brownie or cheese sandwich. In other words, if you want to study how a particular intervention impacts consumption, you can’t just look at the immediate impact on one meal occasion.

It is pretty obvious that there is no research support for the belief that putting Sesame Street characters all over the produce department will lead to, as the First Lady hopes, “our kids begging us to buy them fruits and vegetables instead of cookies, candy and chips.” So why are we doing this?

We have no doubt that the First Lady really wants to improve the health of Americans, especially children. Since we don’t actually know of a very good way for the government to do this, the right public policy response would be to support research in this area.

But this is slow and boring. Announcing a test in Albany doesn’t really merit a White House press conference. Yet the fact is that we have precious little reason to think that putting Sesame Street’s characters on produce will do any good and some realistic reasons to think it might hurt consumption.

It is hard to be angry at anyone over this. It is more sad that, somehow, our society has come to yearn for the quick fix.

The Jr. Pundit Segundo plays basketball and likes football. We support him in these interests, but, truth be told, we wish he liked baseball better. Basketball is fast, it’s pretty fun to watch every minute, but George F. Will wrote of baseball in his book, Bunts, that ‘Baseball is a habit. The slowly rising crescendo of each game, the rhythm of the long season — these are the essentials, and they are remarkably unchanged over nearly a century and a half. Of how many American institutions can that be said?’

Not many. But the temperament to win slowly is an important one for a democracy, and it is one we are losing.

The First Lady’s dreams are so good, but without baseline studies and control groups, we will never know if this initiative does any good or any harm. That seems to be acceptable politically. Hold a rally and then on to the next thing.

It may boost the poll numbers or win an election, but it takes time, attention and resources, and it doesn’t solve the problem.

If we don’t solve the problems, our future is grim.

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