WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2015 - In October 2013, the Produce Marketing Association and the Partnership for a Healthier America (the non-profit arm of first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign) announced a collaboration with an unlikely organization: the Sesame Street Workshop. PMA wanted to get kids hooked on fruits and vegetables early; so did PHA, which brokers public-private partnerships to end childhood obesity. And Sesame Street’s mission has always included using media to improve children’s education and health outcomes. (In fact, Cookie Monster stopped eating cookies in 2005.)

The resulting “eat brighter!” campaign allows produce suppliers and retailers to use Sesame Street characters on their labels — royalty free. “Just imagine what will happen when we take our kids to the grocery store, and they see Elmo and Rosita and the other Sesame Street Muppets they love up and down the produce aisle,” Michelle Obama said during the program’s launch.

A year after the characters began appearing on produce labels and in grocery store displays, parents no longer have to imagine — the data is in. Fifty-one suppliers, including a number of promotional boards, are licensed to use Sesame Street characters in their marketing materials. Of those, 78 percent have seen an increase in sales branded with “eat brighter!” labels. Overall, sales by suppliers are up an average 3 percent since last year.

“Anecdotally…, we’re hearing from retailers and suppliers that consumers like this,” says Kathy Means, vice president of industry relations at PMA. “It’s a real help for moms.”

Means says the that program has saved fruit and vegetable suppliers hundreds of thousands of marketing dollars by offering the use of Elmo, Grover, Big Bird and other characters basically for free, after paying a $950 administrative fee. (She notes that produce does not have a promotional program like the commodity checkoffs.)

Research suggested that the Sesame Street strategy would work. A 2012 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that children were twice as likely to select an apple for lunch if the fruit had an Elmo sticker on it. A study completed in 2010 in the Netherlands found that placing cartoon characters on a package of chopped bananas gets kids as excited about eating them as a package of banana candy.  But familiar children’s media characters are often used to sell non-produce; in 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 91 percent of all food advertisements are for food or beverages high in fat, sodium or added sugar.

“Our inspiration is big consumer brands — their tactics are relentless, compelling, catchy and drive an emotional connection with their products,” Drew Nannis, PHA’s chief marketing officer, wrote in an email. “Now, we're doing the same thing for fruits and veggies, which have never had an opportunity to act like a big brand. Until now. “

Wisconsin-based Skogen’s Festival Food is one of 18 retailers that have taken advantage of the partnership by posting their own branded “eat brighter!” posters in the produce aisles. The company “doesn’t really measure” the campaign’s efficacy through produce sales, says Skogen dietician Lauren Lindsley, but she believes that Sesame Street is getting families more excited about produce.

“It does reach that [two- to five-year-old] age group,” Lindsley says. “But I think it’s way more than that. I know people who are my age, and it brings back memories of watching Sesame Street. … Kids, parents even millennials see [the characters] as a lovable and trusting brand, and associate that with fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The Sesame Street partnership is just one of several renewed marketing efforts initiated by PHA and the produce industry. PHA launched the FNV brand (for Fruit ‘N’ Veggies) in February, which tries to leverage the power of celebrity through hip social media campaigns to make produce look as slick as brands like Nike or Coca Cola. Participants include Jessica Alba, Nick Jonas, pro quarterbacks Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick and NBA MVP Stephen Curry.

Last month, PMA and the Entertainment Resource Marketing Association announced a partnership to promote the use of fruits and vegetables in film and television shows. Rather than a greasy meal of fast food, for example, your favorite TV characters might chow down on salads in the near future.

“We believe that marketing works,” says PMA’s Means. “It’s all about marketing.”


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