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Super Bowl Ads Highlight Need for Increased Promotion of Healthy Foods

The countdown to Super Bowl XLVII has begun. In six days, over 100 million viewers will gather around their televisions—some for the football, some for the half-time show, and many of us, for the ads. The food and beverage industry consistently maintains a visible presence during the Super Bowl, producing some of the most memorable ads. Who could forget Betty White getting tackled playing football in a Snickers commercial or Budweiser’s series of Wassup ads? Now try to recall the last Super Bowl ad you saw for healthy products, such as fruits or vegetables. Any luck? Unfortunately, healthier products generally get the short shrift, lacking the serious ad spend behind big-time campaigns with anthropomorphized animals, talking babies, and attractive women among other tactics.

While we have come to expect a deluge of ads promoting soft drinks, beers, snack foods, and fast food, viewers may be surprised to see some ads going so far as to discourage the consumption of healthy foods. Taco Bell, for example, was originally planning to air a 15-second spot that ridicules vegetables as a suitable game day snack while promoting its Variety 12 Pack of tacos. (Taco Bell announced today that it was pulling the ad after receiving numerous complaints.) After the announcer calls bringing a veggie tray a “cop out—like punting on fourth and one”, we see partygoers dig into the box of tacos while neglecting a rather unappealing-looking tray of vegetables–which the announcer states “people kind of hate you” for bringing. What is unsettling about this ad is not necessarily the promotion of tacos (at about 200 calories each, there are many less healthy things to munch on), but rather the negative messaging about eating a crucial, nutritious part of our daily diet—vegetables. This highlights an important challenge in the fight against obesity: the need to increase public awareness about and positive attitudes toward healthy diets amidst a barrage of marketing for unhealthy products.

Many have noted the imbalance of spending and advertising messages between unhealthy foods and healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes. In a recent report on food marketing, the Federal Trade Commission found that the food industry spent nearly $10 billion on food marketing in 2009. Of that, almost $2.5 billion was spent advertising carbonated beverages and $800 million was spent advertising snack foods compared to a meager $56 million spent advertising fruits and vegetables. For every $1 spent marketing fruits and vegetables, almost $45 was spent marketing sodas.

While industry has taken positive steps toward reducing their marketing of unhealthy products (such as the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative), too many messages continue to promote unhealthy food without adequate balance from messaging that promotes healthy foods. Certainly food and beverage companies will and should continue to advertise, but given the broad reach of their messages – particularly on the big game day – there is an opportunity here not to be missed. In our report, Lots to Lose, we called upon industry leaders in the food sector to use a greater share of their ad budget to communicate clear and consistent messages about the importance of a healthy diet and portray healthy foods in a positive way–where you can be appreciated (not “hated”) for taking control over your health by choosing nutritious options.

In our report, Lots to Lose: How America’s Health and Obesity Crisis Threatens our Economic Future, we identified a number of opportunities for bipartisan action to improve nutrition and physical activity in America. We recommended several actions to improve public education and awareness about healthier lifestyles, including the promotion of foods consistent with the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For example, we recommended the authorization of a generic fruit and vegetable promotion board as well as the establishment of a multi-media campaign to promote healthy diets and physical activity. This campaign should enlist high profile and influential messengers, including celebrities, athletes and other public figures, who resonate with audiences and have the ability to inspire change. The nutrition component of the campaign would focus on the importance of good diet, with a particular emphasis on breaking through the barrage of conflicting information about nutrition to convey a clear message.

Here at BPC we look forward to an entertaining Super Bowl Sunday and hope you enjoy a day filled with good football, good friends, and good food. We hope that next year’s Super Bowl shines a more positive light on healthy lifestyles. In the meantime, don’t forget to pass the veggies!

Leave a comment to let us know what healthy snack you’ll be munching on during the game and any creative ideas you have to promote it.

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