Ah, the sounds of School Year 2006-2007: the clatter of coins going down the pop machines to let loose a POWERade or an aspartame-sweetened diet soda -- maybe even a bottle of juice or milk. The rip of a new box of "reduced-sugar" Fruit Loops (or Frosted Flakes or Apple Jacks) at breakfast.
PR firms got in the door ahead of most school bells. As a result, parents are especially likely to see signs of the American Beverage Association's (ABA) and Kellogg's promotional efforts to brand their children's eating and drinking habits this year.
Many massively-sugared soft drinks, but not their makers, have been suspended from school in 2006, the outcome of a national deal between Big Soda and the Clinton Foundation.
Kellogg's PR firm, Summit Marketing, has just announced "Morning Jump-Start Breakfast Kits," headlining them: "New, Convenient Pre-Packaged Breakfast is Win-Win for Kids and Schools." Here, Kellogg's PR flack apparently means "win-win" because the schools not only get cheap vitaminized junk food, but also "vibrant, primary-colored" educational materials which feature Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam teaching math, science, and, guess what, nutrition and fitness. (There's a healthy PR confession in that sentence, since "win-win" usually refers to "wins" by the contracting parties -- Kellogg's and the schools.)
Certainly many obesity researchers (see here, here, and here) have promoted putting other tigers in our kids' tanks, including higher fibers, more fruit, lower calories and real vitamins. Perhaps it's time that "No Child Left Behind" testing include these questions: 1) Approximate the U.S. increase in overweight children since 1980 (tripled); 2) Guess the child obesity increase over the past 10 years? (one third); 3) Estimate the risk level of obese versus nonobese children in reaching insulin levels linked to Type 2 diabetes? (twelve times).
Both the ABA and Kellogg's strategies offer the pretense of addressing health issues. But what's really at stake?
In the ABA case, my thoughts wind back to this summer and... the NBA. In a post-championship game interview, watched by approximately nine million American households, Miami Heat Coach Pat Riley prominently reminded star Dwyane Wade to turn his Gatorade label out to the masses -- a comment that sports reporter Darrell Rovell (author of a blog and book on Gatorade) promoted in a column. During his own live post-game comments, Wade awkwardly declared to a handler -- "don't want water, give me the Gatorade."
Where did that come from? Maybe Wade himself, or, more likely, Gatorade's marketers, who know soft drink sales have been falling, sports drinks climbing, and the youth niche a crucial product entry point (for example, who would guess that teenage girls are among the largest consumers of sports drinks, perhaps because, along with all the sodium and potassium, they contain somewhat less sugar than other beverages.) So the beverage industry shifted its products into a growth niche while former President Clinton's foundation helped preserve the promotional deals many beverage makers have with schools.
Only one state, Connecticut, has banned soft drinks AND sports drinks from vending machines. Not that I have anything against my son drinking blue or green liquids with ingredient lists like chemistry sets, but limiting school purchases to water, juice and milk would help end the PR sell to kids and set the table for a healthier mindset about snacking and meals.
For the record, here's who's ringing the first PR bells this school year: BBDO Worldwide has created the $10 million national school-opening campaign to promote the beverage association's self-congratulatory campaign on "voluntary" limits on types of school beverages. The ads that just ran in Wisconsin feature a teenage football player saying "Dude, It's all about the food pyramid" with the ad copy: "We all know the importance of raising healthy children. We also know that parents can't do it alone. That's why we at America's beverage companies are proud to announce we're taking a major step to help..." One ad ends: "[W]e hope to help American's current and future schoolchildren grow up healthier than ever." (Than ever? Please see draft obesity test questions Nos. 1-3, above.) The ads are paid for jointly by Coke, Pepsi, and Cadbury Schweppes and are running in the Wall Street Journal, Parade, Real Simple, Woman's Day, major national news magazines, and newspapers across the country.
Summit, in turn, has offered schools the one-two punch of a Kellogg's food scientist and a manager for "Cereal Product Innovations" as contacts, perhaps to help explain how the Pop Tarts included in "Jump Starts" fit into a healthy, balanced diet. Another possible motive for the promotion: low-sugar remakes of popular sugared cereals haven't always fared well on supermarket shelves. Summit's press release calls the menu a "turnkey solution to serve breakfast" in school.
Turnkey? Student councils, or someone with a big school ID, need to put Tony the Tiger, not to mention Gatorade, on the other side of a locked door.