Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama held a press conference with Elmo and Rosita, Muppets from Sesame Street. (Side note - does it make me super old that I have no idea who this Rosita character is?) She was announcing that Sesame Street will allow its characters to be used to market fresh produce, including fruits and vegetables, to children free of licensing fees for 2 years. This is an effort in partnership with the Produce Marketing Association and the Partnership for a Healthier America, and it coincides with the First Lady's "Let's Move" campaign.
This reminds me a lot of the Chipotle campaign - where at first glance it seems awesome and simple, but it is actually a lot more complex. The good first - any effort to get kids to eat more fruit and vegetables is important. Kids need vitamins and nutrients as they grow and develop, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables at a young age helps to build healthy habits and allow kids to develop a taste for more than just chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese.
But is the best way to get them to eat the fruits and vegetables to package them and put famous characters on them?
As far as characters go, they could have chosen worse than Sesame Street. Sesame Workshop has contributed to the education of millions of American children over the years. I grew up on Sesame Street and I know I learned so much from watching it on PBS.
Also, Sesame Workshop is giving up a lot of profit in waiving licensing fees for two years. That's a big deal, even considering the PR boost they will get by the gesture.
But at the end of the day, I am not convinced that marketing to children is even really appropriate in any context. Marketing at its most basic level is about manipulating information to persuade someone of something. Young children haven't developed the reasoning skills to be able to discern between education and marketing. Putting characters on packaging, even of healthy foods, reinforces the idea that you should buy items with characters on them. Sesame Street characters already appear on foods for kids - processed, packaged foods. And to them, what's the difference between Grover, Disney Princesses, Hello Kitty or Tony the Tiger?
It would be more compelling to me if characters weren't currently used on all manner of junk food products aimed at kids. They will likely be unable to differentiate between Grover on a package of cookies and Grover on a package of grapes. I recall wanting my mom to buy products I knew I didn't like, simply because of the packaging. I hated sliced white bread when I was a kid, but I know I lobbied for her to buy Wonder Bread because it had cheerful polka dots on it. I was unable to reason that I didn't actually even want to eat it. This is not to say that items shouldn't be attractively packaged or designed. But how much more seductive is Elmo to a child than polka dots? A lot.
It can also be argued that there might be a price increase in the fruits and vegetables with the characters on them, considering that previously unpackaged vegetables and fruits might need plastic bags to feature the characters. That all remains to be seen, as the marketing for these products actually takes shape. I hope that it's done really carefully, and that it will encourage other companies to really consider what messaging they are sending to children.