-By Daniel Neilson
Broccoli or french fries? Take your pick. If you are like most, french fries are the overwhelmingly more appealing choice. Sure you might say, “But I’m such a healthy eater! I’ve seen SuperSize Me and I know how bad fast food is for me.” Unfortunately, you are still in the minority. A recent study shows that the majority of the US population did not meet recommendations for all of the nutrient rich food groups(Krebs Smith, Guenther, Subar, Kirkpatrick & Dodd). Despite glimmers of hope from successful interventions across the country, recent data shows that more than one third of US adults are obese and that obesity afflicts 17% of children and adolescents(Ogden, Carroll, Kit and Flegal). Why is this and why does it seem like the healthy decision is always the hardest one to make?
Of course, there is no one right answer to the questions above. Socioeconomic status, food deserts, subsidization of processed foods, social norms and cultural values all play an integral role in determining what and how much we eat, among many other factors. Interventions abound across the country to teach people have about why they should eat specific foods and avoid others. However, given the typical emphasis on education regarding the benefits of the desired behavior in health promotional materials, it appears that something deeper is at play.
What exactly is a “happy meal” anyways? If you are a child, receiving plastic, hand-sized toys from your favorite cartoon or movie certainly increases the odds that you will enjoy the food it came with. I can remember a particular car ride with my dad as a whiny eight year old boy where he lovingly(in hindsight perhaps strategically) drove me around to 5 different McDonald’s locations as I pleaded with him that I just had to have the latest salamander toy that could only be found in a McDonald’s happy meal. Would you like a side of broccoli with that?
Changing food habits to combat the rampant growth of nutrition related diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes in America will require strategic, multi-pronged, theory based changes that address poor nutrition habits at all levels of influence(Krebs-Smith, Reedy & Bosire). But what about first starting with a little fun? “Fun?”, you say, what does that have to do with healthy eating? To that I say, exactly.
A major reason why junk foods and fast food joints are so popular is not only how exciting they are to our tastebuds, but what they promise us. For a child surveying the following poster outside a McDonald’s, happiness and family bonding are on the menu.
For an adult driving by this ad on the side of a highway, eating at McDonald’s promises the chance for them to freely express themselves and think independently.
Compare this to the USDA’s new take on the Food Pyramid, MyPlate, a visual depiction of what American’s food plates should look like at meal time.
Unfortunately, this health promotion campaign falls short because it promises exactly that…health, and not much else. When compared to MyPlate’s bland presentation of what proper decision making at meal time should look like, the flair and panache of the McDonald’s ads are overwhelming in their appeal.
Flashing back to myself as an eight year old boy who was fascinated with dinosaurs, I can vividly remember how my mom coerced me into eating my vegetables, namely broccoli. “Danny, did you know that broccoli was the favorite food of the brontosaurus?” Needless to say, from that point forward I chomped through my servings of broccoli with glee as I imagined eating the same way as my favorite dinosaur. To me, this became a true “happy meal”.
Unfortunately for the health of consumers in America and across the world, the best advertising and marketing agencies are typically hired out by companies selling processed and unhealthy foods (Moss). Have you ever heard of a banana advocate or seen Beyonce singing and dancing around in a commercial with a handful of carrots? In a striking example of what the best creative minds in the world can come up when put to the task of marketing healthy foods, a fictional campaign for broccoli by the ad agency Victors and Spoils provides great hope. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/magazine/broccolis-extreme-makeover.html Some of the highlights from the agency’s work on this project include plans to start a fictional “fight” with kale, reminiscent of the Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi sales battles of the 1980’s which inevitably ended up driving up prices for both sodas. Additionally, plans to promote broccoli as “The Alpha Vegetable” in traditionally masculine arenas such as on the side of cars at NASCAR races are nothing short of brilliant.
Addressing the nation’s burgeoning health complications related to the growth of nutrition related diseases will not be simple or quick. However, given the dearth of successful efforts to promote healthy foods in America, it appears that there is an enormous opportunity to reduce the burden of nutritional related disease if traditional advertising and marketing efforts can be implemented in the promotion of healthy foods. I have hope for an America where a “happy meal” is not one filled with solid fats, added sugars and toys meant to hook children to a specific company, but a sit down meal with one’s family where healthy eating is cause for thanks and gratitude.
Krebs-Smith, Guenther, Subar, Kirkpatrick & Dodd. 2012. Americans Do Not Meet Federal Dietary Recommendations. The Journal of Nutrition: Nutrient Requirements and Optimal Nutrition, 82, 1-8.
Krebs-Smith, Reedy & Bosire. 2010. Healthfulness of the U.S. Food Supply: Little Improvement Despite Decades of Dietary Guidance. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 38(5): 472– 477.
Moss. (2013, November 1). Broccoli’s Extreme Makeover. New York Times. Retrieved February 12, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/magazine/broccolis-extreme-makeover.html
Ogden, Carroll, Kit & Flegal. 2012. Prevalence of obesity in the United States, 2009-2010. NCHS Data Brief, (82):1-8.