The ad agency Victors & Spoils has created campaigns for some of the biggest brands in the food industry — Coca-Cola, Quiznos and General Mills among them. Until now, what they’d never done was try to figure out how to sell broccoli. Or any vegetables or fruits of any kind. This of course is not unique to Victors & Spoils. Major American advertising agencies tend not to get hired by produce growers to help them market fresh fruits and vegetables. They are hired by large companies making huge profits from processed foods to reach into whatever crannies of the American (or global) public they have not yet connected with. Victors & Spoils is exceedingly good at doing just that. The agency’s “Smile Back” campaign for Coca-Cola, which was released this summer, has been hailed as an ingenious use of a kind of guerrilla advertising, albeit with very slick production, composed of footage of grinning, attractive ambassadors for Coca-Cola pedaling through cities and rural areas around the globe, handing out free Cokes to anyone who smiled back.
But there is some change in the air when it comes to marketing healthful food in America, and in anticipation of that, I posed a challenge to the firm: How would you get people to want to buy and eat broccoli? What would your campaign look like? What would the message be? What would you do that all the well-intentioned government-funded campaigns have failed to do for generations?
Now two dozen associates of the firm sat stymied in a room filled with responses they received from people they surveyed in order to get a handle on exactly what the public felt about broccoli. One wall was draped with sheets of paper upon which various first impressions were scrawled: “Overcooked, soggy.” “Hiding under cheese.” “Told not to leave the table until I eat it.”
The team had also asked that same crowd to write tombstone epitaphs for broccoli, as a way of eliciting possible tender feelings toward the product. The results weren’t especially heartwarming. “Goodbye, poor friend,” read one. “I hardly spent time with you, mainly because I didn’t like you.” A third wall contained a dozen snapshots of open refrigerators, an attempt to visualize the space broccoli occupied in people’s real dietary lives. The space it held, at least on this wall, was . . . nowhere. It was nonexistent in the photos.
Earlier in the day, the ad team visited an elementary school in Boulder, Colo., to get a better sense of what children thought about broccoli. This was a progressive school, certainly as far as food was concerned. The school district’s director of food services, Ann Cooper, was imported from Berkeley, Calif., where she once worked with Alice Waters; on the school’s grounds there was a garden where various fruits and vegetables were grown, to inspire the students to be connected to the source of their food. The team was encouraged when it heard that the students had generally positive feelings — until Cooper reminded them that children were only one part of the challenge and that the parents who actually bought the groceries were, by and large, part of a generation that viewed broccoli as “brown, squishy and smelly.”
Sara Brito, the ad team’s strategy director, summed up the information they’d gathered — and the predicament of trying to sell something that was drowning in negatives: “It’s overlooked and left behind,” she said. “It doesn’t matter in our culture. It has lost its confidence, succumbed to bullying and pressure. It’s content being on the sidelines.”
Something she said reminded me of the successful ad campaign started in the ‘70s to sell Life cereal (“He likes it! Hey, Mikey!”) and the challenge that ad team had in trying to take on the more popular sugary cereals it was competing against. Brito nodded her head. Yes, she said. “Where is our Mikey moment?”
Ari Levi, one of the team’s associate creative directors, suggested that the canniest strategy might be to embrace broccoli’s negatives. “Maybe there’s something cool in not being cool,” he said. “Accepting broccoli for what it is.”
Andy Nathan, the agency’s chief marketing officer, offered gently: “It is a flower.”