Can SpongeBob broccoli convert children?

By Stephen Frothingham

The cartoon characters who normally inhabit your grocer’s cereal aisle are on the move.

Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants and the Disney and Sesame Street gangs are among the many children’s favorites who in recent years have taken up residence in the produce section.

Which is why you now can tempt your tots with Dora edamame, SpongeBob broccoli and Winnie the Pooh apples.

The folks behind these licensing deals say plastering produce with popular characters is win-win – growers and retailers see sales boom, the companies that own the characters extend their brands, and children are encouraged to eat good foods.

But not everyone is sold on the idea that Tweety Bird grapes are a good idea.

“Do we want our children to learn to choose food based on whether it is labeled with a certain character?” asks Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“We miss the chance to help them learn to choose based on the food itself.”

Until about five years ago, the few recognizable brand names in the produce section didn’t exactly inspire clamoring by children. Meanwhile, the cereal and snacks aisles were a riot of collaborations with cartoon and movie characters.

But as concern about child obesity has grown, food companies have faced mounting pressure from regulators, Congress and parents to end the aggressive marketing of sugary and fatty foods to children.

And that pressure has produced results. Eleven of the nation’s largest food and drink companies recently announced sweeping changes in how they market to young children, including limiting the use of licensed characters to healthy foods.

That has entertainment companies looking for new real estate in the grocery store, and that fact that produce is about the only food health officials want children eating more of makes fruits and vegetables prime property.

“I’ve seen a significant increase (in licensing programs) in the last five years,” says Kathy Means, of the Delaware-based Produce Marketing Association. “A lot of it is being borne by efforts to market healthier products to children, because there is a childhood obesity problem and we know that eating right is a big component to fixing that problem.”

Branding produce in this way was not possible 10 or 20 years ago. The trend toward more convenience-driven precut produce packed in boxes and bags makes it easier to use licensed characters.

“Now they have a place to put the brand. There is only so much real estate on produce stickers,” Means says.

Borrowing from the cereal aisle playbook has been good for business.

Growers and retailers have seen sales of produce increase 11 to 44 percent when they sell it in NASCAR-branded packaging, says Jack Bertagna of the Castellini Group, which licenses the NASCAR trademark for produce.

“NASCAR fans are so loyal, they are absolute fanatics,” Bertagna says. “They are willing to pay more because of the brand.”

At the Maine-based Hannaford Bros. Co. grocery chain, licensed produce outsells conventional by about 10 percent, says spokesman Ben Amato. The chain recently used Sesame Street characters to introduce a different variety of apple each month.

When presented well, the licensed products “create a billboard effect that captures the child and parents’ imagination and desire to purchase the product,” he says.

Which doesn’t make everyone happy. While it’s clear American children need to eat more produce, critics of character-driven marketing say this trend isn’t the answer.

“It works both ways,” says Linn. “SpongeBob is promoting some fruit, but he is also promoting his TV show, and we know that screen time is a key factor in childhood obesity.”

Means sees no downside to promoting healthy food.

“If SpongeBob is their favorite show, I think it’s OK to watch it, as long as they’re not sitting there all day. There may be other motivations at work, but from my perspective, if it’s selling more produce to kids, that’s good,” she says.

“The outcome is still the same: we are getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables,” she says.

Victor Strasburger, a New Mexico pediatrician who wrote the American Academy of Pediatrics policy on marketing, says this sort of branding is more palatable to him when the characters that appear on produce don’t also show up on unhealthy options.

But some parents complain that this trend has turned yet another section of the grocer into a battleground.

“I’m sure I’m not the only mom to buy the Disney carrots because her 3-year-old demanded it,” says Cara Bernosky, a mother of two and president of IMC Licensing, a Louisville, Ky., agency that represents companies looking to license their brands.

She has yet to help match a brand with a fruit or vegetable, and she’s not sure about the long-term value of the practice.

“In my opinion it’s something of an overcorrection after years of these brands associating with unhealthy foods. It’s almost more of a product placement to build goodwill with moms,” she says.

“It’s a good effort, but I don’t know that it’s going to have a lasting effect of truly making fruits and vegetables more tasty for youngsters. It makes them more craveable, but my son has not yet cleaned his plate. When you get the carrot out of the bag, it’s still a carrot,” she says.