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You Can Take It With You: Marketing to Those on the Go

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

First there was Yoplait's Go-Gurt, which sort of made sense -- sometimes you want calcium but can't spare time for a sit-down nosh. Skippy's Squeeze Stix were weirder, but we understood it: Peanut butter in a tube is basically just the traveler's take on PB on a spoon.

But now portable food has come to this:

Mars candy corporation has introduced a Milky Way 2 To Go bar.

It's what used to be the regular king-size Milky Way, see, except that it's pre-broken in half so you can eat it on the go.

A brilliant solution, clearly, to that classic vending machine dilemma: "I would love to buy this Milky Way right now, but I am not sitting at a table and am entirely without knife and fork! If only someone would invent a candy bar that did not require such elaborate preparations for consumption!"

The bar is a cousin of the newish Go-Tarts, a slightly slimmer but otherwise identical version of the Pop-Tart, whose eating, as everyone knows, previously required a china plate.

"On the Go." It's a home run phrase for advertisers. Market research firm Datamonitor reports that the number of foods with "go" in the product name or labeling has more than tripled since 2001 -- from 134 to around 500. Convenience is big, time is limited, blah blah blah. But this latest trend, in which foods are cunningly sold as On the Go even if their Go-ness was never in doubt, underscores the bigness of the concept in today's society. Is the production and purchasing of these foods really about saving time, or does buying them fulfill a deeper need?

Where is "the Go" and why do we so desperately want to eat there?

The answer to that question is part of On the Go appeal, says Nancy Childs, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. We actually don't want to eat "there."

"We're not used to being tied to places anymore," Childs says. "It makes us uncomfortable." On the Go foods are like iPods, she says. It's no surprise that the spike in handheld meals has coincided with the rise of a whole bunch of other handhelds. Wireless food.

If people want the iPod, not the stereo, and the portable candy bar instead of the, uh, non-portable candy bar, then that's what they'll get.

Richard J. George is a colleague of Childs's and a consultant who helps corporations find ways to advertise their products' convenience. He offers each company one major tip: "Don't tell me how good your product is. Tell me how good I am."

That Milky Way bar? It's self-aware. It realizes that you don't need to be told it's portable. "To go" is not a selling point for the chocolate, it's an affirmation of you: I recognize who you are, it says. I understand that you are the type of person who needs something to fit your busy lifestyle.

The candy bar is not actually a solution to that lifestyle. It is a status symbol, like the now-ubiquitous yoga-mat-as-proof-of-serenity. The "To Go" Milky Way is proof of chaos, proof of over-scheduling, proof that maybe you deserve to eat the candy bar, whether walking or sitting.

Some brands seem to be perfectly aware of the irony in their On the Go (or not) messages. Take Nescafe's "Taster's Choice On the Go," one of 103 "beverage sticks" (just add water) introduced since 2006 -- compared with just 10 launches between 2000 and 2005. The back of the Nescafe box offers three examples of the highly active occasions for which the sticks, like shorter, fatter Pixy Stix, are particularly useful. Two are:

(1) For parties and get-togethers.

(2) At work.

Work. For the office manager who intersperses e-mailing with decathlons.

Like Milky Way, Nescafe doesn't care about actually being On the Go as much as it wants to prove that it gets you: You feel like you're on the go, much too on the go to go to the office coffeepot, even to have your butt leave your ergonomic chair.

But this comforting empathy can lead to blobby consequences.

Brian Wansink heads Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, which studies why people buy and eat the things they buy and eat. "The deceivingly dangerous thing about foods that are labeled 'On the Go' is the same thing that's dangerous about foods that are labeled low-fat. We don't really count them when we add up our calories." The lab recently completed a study in which participants consumed a meal standing and then sitting, and then estimated their calorie intake for each meal. Nearly all drastically underestimated the count in their stand-up meals. That Milky Way? A full 460 calories, whether you shove it all in your mouth at once or save some for later.

What starts out as On the Go usually ends up as on the hips.

Or, in some cases, in the liver.

Enter . . . the Pocket Shot, a sporty-looking tear-top plastic pouch filled with vodka, rum, whiskey, gin or tequila. Unlike Nescafe, Pocket Shots are not meant to be consumed only at sissy places like work or parties. The Web site suggests drinking them while: Biking! Swimming! Rollerblading! Hiking! among other activities. Seeing as the product's tagline is "Flask on the Fly," one wonders when Piloting an Airplane! will be added to the list.

The target audience for this is unclear (marathoners? astronauts?). Actually, scratch that. It's totally clear. Pocket Shot is for anyone who needs to wash down a Go-Tart with a good stiff drink.

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