By Caitlin McDevitt
Sunday, May 3, 2009
When the cartoon Popeye the Sailor Man emerged in the United States in the 1920s, sales of his signature food, spinach, rose by one-third. Today, Disney is hoping that Zac Efron can do the same for avocados. And Mickey Mouse for eggs. And Tinker Bell for corn on the cob.
Disney's practice of licensing its characters for placement on children's food products is not new, but its strategy is. Whereas cereal boxes and fast-food bags used to be prime real estate for company-to-kid marketing, alarming rates of childhood obesity caused Disney to think twice about aligning its name with sugary or fatty foods. So over the past few years, Disney has gradually distanced itself from junk food. It ended its McDonald's Happy Meal contract in 2006 and has been expanding its association with healthier foods since then. The result: an abundance of Disney-branded healthy stuff, including fruits, vegetables and dairy products.
This explains the advent of Disney-branded eggs, which landed on store shelves in Florida and New York in late March. The outside packaging of the egg carton brandishes Mickey's smiling mug and the message: "Good source of Protein." Each eggshell has been stamped with the face of a different Disney character -- from Tigger to Buzz Lightyear. Skeptics may doubt that any parent would pay more for branded eggs or that kids would eat them just because of a cartoon endorsement. But, however silly it may seem, if the past is any indicator, these eggs will be golden for Disney.
Disney health-food promotions began in 2006 with an experimental idea. Licensed characters would appear on basic fruits like apples on the only spot available: the thumbnail-sized stickers. It worked out, magically, in fact. Growers were happy to partner with the well-known brand if it meant selling more produce, and Disney rebranded the act of marketing its movies to hungry children as "corporate social responsibility." Quite clever.
The backlash Disney had felt from tempting kids with french fries was replaced by a pat on the back for advertising on oranges. Now, there are more than 250 offerings in the Disney Garden line, at least one of which is available in 18 of the top 20 mass and grocery retailers in the United States. Sales grew 70 percent in 2008 over the previous year, thanks to expanding offerings.
One such product is the High School Musical avocado. When Disney stamps a product with a popular character, such as tween sensation Zac Efron, it "can't help but benefit from the nag factor," says Lance Gatewood, the vice president of Disney Consumer Products' Food, Health & Beauty, North American division. And, when kids are begging their parents for something nutritious, like an avocado, he explains, it's hard to say no. Parents are happy, growers are happy, grocers are happy, kids are happy and healthy, and, oh yeah, Disney is pleased, too. It turns out that seasonal fruits can be the perfect promotional platform for a film. Last summer's avocado season coincided conveniently with the fall release of High School Musical 3. Besides the promotional boost, Disney earns back royalties on units sold. And, because of the Disney appeal, more units tend to sell. Sometimes it's a lot more: Bagged-apple sales went up 47 percent during a High School Musical promotion at Winn-Dixie.
Other companies have followed suit. Discovery Kids announced a similar produce-marketing initiative a year after Disney's, and Viacom's Nickelodeon vowed to end licensing of its characters on unhealthy foods by early 2009. Not only are other media companies discovering the potential of the health-food market, but they're increasingly under siege for associating with unhealthy foods. Last summer, a Federal Trade Commission report made a sweeping call for all entertainment companies to "limit the licensing of their characters to healthier foods and beverages that are marketed to children."
But do we really want to extend the already ubiquitous marketing of kid culture to food? "If we think about children's well-being, the best thing we could do is to stop marketing any food to them and let parents make choices about what their children eat without being undermined by advertising," says Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
Somehow, though, that kind of criticism seems unlikely to slow Disney down. It is currently expanding its line of whole-wheat-breaded Mickey Mouse-shaped chicken nuggets to national wholesale giant Costco, as well as beefing up licensing offerings with Campbell's soup. According to Gatewood, the food segment of the Disney Consumer Products Group predicts double-digit percentage growth relative to last year, whereas other merchandising units will likely decline.
As the world's top licensor, Disney profits from lending its characters to tons of outlets, from T-shirt makers to toy manufacturers. But the supermarket is one of very few thriving economic sectors these days; while parents are spending fewer discretionary dollars on playthings and extra clothes for their kids, most aren't cutting back on basic groceries. Families are reportedly dining out less and stocking up at the supermarket instead. And now a slew of cartoon characters are fortuitously there to greet them in nearly every aisle.
Caitlin McDevitt is an editorial assistant at The Big Money.