Let’s help kids be even more fat

I was looking through news stories on my Google News feed when I came across this story: that the same advertising agency responsible for promoting Capri Sun’s super sized portable drinks (’cause diabetes is so refreshing!) is the same agency that created Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign (to combat childhood obesity). The first paragraph of the story ends with the word: Awk-ward.

Now, I actually don’t think this is so awkward because chances are there are two totally different teams working on each campaign– each one having a marketing strength enabling them to create a high quality campaign without much concern as to what other teams are working on. Totally not a conflict of interest. In fact, agencies aside, CPG companies often have contradictory product lines– case in point: Unilever owns both Dove (ladies: love your body, just as it is!) and Axe (douchebags: use our products and hot girls will bang you!) Business is business. It ain’t personal and neutral bodies don’t have to take a side.

Many people go to business school with the intention of entering the CPG (consumer packaged goods) world as brand managers and while this wasn’t my explicit goal, I definitely expected to continue in marketing and therefore brand management was something I looked into and half-heartedly pursued. I say half-heartedly for a number of reasons. One, it was somewhat noticeable that the CPG world is primarily filled by white women. Perhaps it was in my head and yes, I guess marketing is something that tends to attract females. Also, many CPGs are located in the Mid-West (Kraft is in Illinois, P&G in Ohio, General Mills is in Minnesota)– more ethnically homogeneous regions of the US. Either way, being a minority, I felt a little bit, I dunno, off or uncomfortable during company visits.

But another thing that I wondered about was marketing for products that you don’t personally care about. This was a question that was asked during a presentation when I was in business school and the response (from a marketing professor) was good, I think: that the best marketers are able to sell products that don’t appeal to them necessarily. That they are so good at gleaning insights about their target market to successful pitch the products to them. I know somebody from school who is vegetarian and leads marketing efforts for BBQ briquets. And I know of a guy (not a cat owner) who manages marketing for kitty litter. So ok, that’s fine: you don’t care about a product but you can find a way to successfully sell it to people who do. And now that I think about it: I helped to market video games for a short period and while I am not a gamer, I thought it was interesting.

But what if your job entails selling a product that is inherently bad for the consuming public? I don’t want to pass judgment so I’ll try to state this as neutrally as possible. But I have always wondered about people’s abilities to market products that are judged to be detrimental to society. One of my friends used to be a marketing executive for a cigarette company. She is not a smoker. So I asked her if it was tough selling a product known to cause cancer and you know, kill people. And she said no: that you don’t think too much about it and that you are focused on selling your products to somebody who has already made the decision to smoke. In other words: you are marketing your brand and not the activity itself. So sure, that does offer some kind of moral salve.

But what about marketing products that are harmful (perhaps in the long term) to kids? When I was living in Los Angeles, I applied to (and was denied by) two of the big CPG companies there: Mattel and Nestle. Both have solid marketing programs and are great places to start a brand management career. Mattel positions itself as a manufacturer of items to help kids play and develop. Nestle positions itself as a manufacturer of nutrition, health and wellness foods. That sounds so wholesome and good. But Mattel’s most well-known brand is Barbie, a product that perpetuates a singular (and rather demented) interpretation of beauty with potential harm to girls’ self esteem. And Nestle owns Wonka candy. So the question seemed to be: would I rather market products that make millions of girls feel bad about themselves or products that make kids exceptionally fat?

I guess the counter to that is similar to the saying: Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. In other words, merely manufacturing and marketing a product means making items accessible for consumption. How much people consume– that is a personal choice and does not fall within the marketer’s realm of influence. You may seduce and entice people to purchase your brand but failure to regulate one’s consumption is the consumer’s own fault. This, I suppose, is my justification for marketing video games: if a person sits like a zombie for extended periods, wearing adult diapers, and unable to hold a job or sustain a life due to addiction to video games (this was the topic of a documentary I recently watched)– that is a failure to self-regulate on the part of the consumer.

But it’s hard to look at fat kids and not blame CPGs– is that bad of me? It’s hard not to look at Capri Sun and not think that they are being incredibly bad people capitalizing on children’s lack of impulse control. Their failure to understand portion control. That bigger isn’t always better. With food, usually it just means fatter.

So that’s all from me, I guess. Having studied what goes into marketing products for the public– having that insight on the “wizard behind the curtain”– makes me sad a little. Business is business. It ain’t personal. And if you find yourself and your family in poor health in the future, you have to blame yourself and the decisions you made. ‘Cause whereas we may have made you excited about putting a cigarette in your mouth, nobody told you to inhale.



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