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So long, Tony the Tiger?

(article, Keri Fisher)

As a child growing up in the 1970s, my food role models were the stars of the public-service announcements that aired between Saturday-morning cartoons: Timer, a yellow blob with top hat and cane who starred in spots like “Don’t Drown Your Food, “ (in “mayo, salt, ketchup, or goo”), and the Chopper, a Fonzie-esque motorcycle dude who advised us to “exercise those choppers, really chew, chew, chew!” 

Well-intentioned but perhaps ill-conceived (do our teeth really need exercise?), Timer and the Chopper were at least better than what’s offered to kids today, which (from my admittedly limited television watching) appears to be nothing more than commercial characters like Trix the Rabbit and the Pillsbury Doughboy. 

Across the pond, however, in a country not exactly known for healthy eating, a quartet of preteens is changing the way kids eat. Ireland has been invaded by the Food Dudes, a set of human heroes who gain their powers from eating broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, and raspberries. They tussle regularly with the Junk Punks, who aim to deplete the world’s energy by stealing all its fruits and vegetables. 

The video adventures of the Food Dudes, which also feature celebrity endorsements and rewards like stickers, are being shown in schools throughout Ireland to great effect. Since the pilot program began in 2005, fruit-and-veggie consumption among children ages 2 to 11 has doubled. The program is now being rolled out in some areas of England and Scotland as well. 

Such overt marketing to children is nothing new (just ask Ronald McDonald or Joe Camel), but it’s rare that the same techniques — all the cool kids are doing it — are actually used to promote healthful eating. (From a letter to kids from the Food Dudes on their website: “Who else do you think eats lots of fruit and vegetables? That’s right, footballers, athletes, pop stars, TV presenters  . . .”)

Conventional marketing to children is also under fire in Malaysia, where authorities aim to ban fast-food advertising on children’s television shows. The stated goals of the ban sound remarkably similar to those of the Food Dudes. 

At a news conference, health minister Chua Soi Lek said, "The move can be regarded as an educational effort to raise the public's awareness about the importance of eating nutritious food instead of relying on fast food." 

Perhaps in this country it’s time to follow Malaysia and Ireland’s lead. We wouldn’t even have to look that far for our own dudes; just swap Timer’s top hat and cane for a baseball cap and iPod, pen a few new songs for the Chopper, and we’re good to go.