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It's a 'Life Preserver'! It's 'Death-Defying'! It's . . . A Super Ad Campaign!

Pom Wonderful is spending a fortune to promote the potential benefits of pomegranate juice. But what are consumers to make of the message?

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What exactly does it mean when a bottle of fruit juice wearing a cape declares, "I'm off to save prostates!"? What are we to think when we see the same bottle with a hangman's noose cut from its neck and are told it can "cheat death"? And what about when it's lying on a psychoanalyst's couch and is declared to be in "heart therapy"?

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Well, for starters don't take those things seriously, says the maker of Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice.

" 'Cheat death' is simply the use of puffery, tongue in cheek. It's a voice that is frankly designed to cut through the clutter," Matt Tupper, president of Los Angeles-based Pom Wonderful, said recently.

But puffery aside, please do believe that pomegranate juice has all sorts of benefits in preventing -- or is it treating? -- conditions as disparate as coronary heart disease, impotence, diabetes and prostate cancer. That seems to be the main message of the company's advertising campaign in the Washington Metro and other high-profile venues around the region.

Pom Wonderful is in the midst of an effort to transform the deep-red and difficult-to-eat pomegranate from a novelty fruit to a drinkable Fountain of Youth. Its strategy employs science, humor and rhetoric that obscures as much as it reveals.

The juice is the latest project of marketing genius Lynda Resnick, who with her husband, Stewart, owns Fiji Water and Teleflora (and, until a few years ago, the Franklin Mint), as well as Pom Wonderful and a huge California fruit-and-nut-growing operation called Paramount Farms. She just published a book, "Rubies in the Orchard," that contains, according to its cover, "the Pom Queen's Secrets to Marketing Just About Anything." But for Resnick, pomegranates are far from anything.

Since 1990, she and her husband have spent about $30 million underwriting laboratory and clinical research on pomegranate juice. The studies have convinced her that the fruit's mystique and reputation for healthfulness (which goes back to the time of the pharaohs) is well deserved. She makes her father drink pomegranate extract every day, and he's still working at age 90. Last year she sent 18,000 pomegranate trees to Rwanda as part of a project to plant sustainable gardens for AIDS patients.

"I do believe from the bottom of my heart that pomegranate is the healthiest food in the world," she said in an interview while visiting Washington two weeks ago.

Resnick also believes "the medicine chest of the 21st century is in the produce case of the supermarket." Accordingly, her advertising campaign stresses pomegranate juice's biological effects and not its taste or general nutritiousness. It's the antioxidants -- and in particular the polyphenolic ones, which are also found in red wine, green tea and blueberry juice -- that are the big selling point.

What can or can't be said about a food or its components is a complicated issue governed by two agencies -- the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates food labeling, and the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising.

The FDA allows three types of claims on food labels: a "health claim," a "structure/function claim" and a "nutrient content claim," each with specific requirements or guidelines. Pom Wonderful has not sought permission to make any of them.

"We have elected not to pursue an FDA health claim because [such claims] are not specific to individual products, but are used generically. . . . All pomegranate juices would be able to make the health claim," said Rob Six, a vice president of Roll Corp. International, the Resnicks' privately held company that owns Pom Wonderful and their other businesses.

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