What Can Junk Food Teach Philanthropy?

Recently I came across a fascinating article about an effort to brand baby carrots as “junk food”.

From Fast Company Magazine:

“Bolthouse Farms sells nearly a billion pounds of carrots a year… The company has been around for nearly a century now, but it boomed in the 1990s, with a breakthrough product… baby carrots were a hit… The really big deal, the thing nobody expected, was that baby carrots seemed to make Americans eat more carrots. In the decade after they were introduced, carrot consumption in the United States doubled.

Then a couple of years ago, after a decade of steady growth, Bolthouse’s carrot sales went flat… So the company brought in Jeff Dunn, the former head of Coca-Cola’s businesses in North and South America.

Dunn was clear: He didn’t want a health campaign, one that talked about beta carotene or cutting calories. He wanted something more emotional, maybe something funny, something that appealed to impulse rather than responsibility — the kind of thing a soft-drink or snack-food company might do.

[The ad agency] unveiled storyboards with concepts for a series of winking, self-aware junk-food ads. One ad featured a baby-carrot-branded spray tan, endorsed by Snooki, the star of MTV’s Jersey Shore… In another, a sultry model, surrounded by billowing black silk, runs a carrot slowly across her lips as a voice-over purrs about indulgence — think Dove chocolates. The best one seemed inspired by a Mountain Dew commercial. A skater dude rides a jet-powered shopping cart through a desert pass, dodging baby-carrot gunfire. Things blow up. There’s a pterodactyl. "Extreme pterodactyl!" the voice-over yells."

"People will say, ‘You open the bag, it’s just baby carrots.’ Well, it’s just Lay’s potato chips, it’s just Doritos, there’s nothing special about them," he says. "They’re just cool and part of your life. If Doritos can sell cheeseburger-flavored Doritos, we can sell baby carrots."

By November, sales in Bolthouse’s test markets were up 10% to 12% over the year before, compared to minimal improvement or slight decline in a control group.”

In the article, Dunn reflects on his conflicted feelings about having promoted high consumption of Coca-Cola and the direct link between soft drinks and obesity. It is clear that he sees his effort to promote a healthy product, at the expense of true junk foods, as a kind of redemption process.

The article got me thinking about the most effective way to promote philanthropy. For the last hundred years Americans have given about 2% of income to charity. This percentage has been remarkably consistent during good times and bad. Maybe the key to increasing the amount given to charity is to get away from the “give because it is good for you” (good for your soul, good for others, something you “should” do) approach and embrace a philanthropy as junk food mentality?

Is the fast growing Kiva.org, that addictive little website that has captured the hearts and minds of 500,000 Americans from every walk of life, a sort of philanthropy junk food (I’ve called Kiva a gateway drug to social finance in the past).

Studies show that giving to charity triggers the same neural pathways as drugs, chocolate and sex so maybe marketing philanthropy as a junk food isn’t false advertising but actually closer to the truth than the moralistic “it is the right thing to do” approach that is so often preached.

I’m not convinced in the least that a philanthropy as junk food marketing approach would succeed or is even the right thing to do.

But it sure is intriguing…


  1. Sean, if we can unleash the creative talent of volunteers we can create mountains of new ideas that bring karots to non profits on a more consistent basis. This concept is at the core of what I’ve been trying to do with the Tutor/Mentor Connection. While I had a PR firm working with me for more than 8 years, I’ve never had a creative firm at the same time using their talent to draw customers to tutor/mentor programs the way the carrot ads are.

    You might say that many ad agencies do support causes and campaigns and I’d agree. However, I don’t know of many cities where a map is being used to show all of the poverty neighborhoods, and most of the like-kined organizations providing a needed service, but in many places.

    With the map and directory the ad agency could be pointing volunteers and donors to all of the programs in the city, not just the high profile ones where a board member is an ad person, and not just to the neighborhoods that seem to get lots of media attention.

    Maybe if more of us write about this, that kind of talent will begin to emerge.

  2. Ana Budin says:

    I just wanted to say that I love the idea in this post! It is a very important idea. I do not see it as manipulation when we help people feel positive things about giving, whataver the nature of these positive feelings. Modern commercial advertising is king of people’s imagination, often leading them to feel cravings that are bad for them , but also developing their sense of beauty, belonging, achieving, taking care of themselves and their loved ones. If there is any arena where these skills should be employed, it is in helping people feel good about giving. In the end, however, I think that the ultimate good feeling from giving can only come through sincere contact with the beneficiaries of giving or other positive outcomes….just like you only feel really good once you’ve actually had that Dorito the ad made you crave for.

    • Thanks Ana. Advertising, convincing people to do something, doesn’t need to be used in a manipulative way. There are better and worse ways to convince people of things and it is smart, not manipulative, to use ways that work better. I think the big message of the carrots as junk food campaign is that sometimes it might be better to promote the ways that something is self-serving or enjoyable, rather than stressing the ways it is good for you. Since charitable giving is both pleasurable for the giver as well as good for the public, we have the option to “advertise” the ways it is pleasurable for the giver. Doing so isn’t manipulative and if it works, let’s do it!

  3. If we’re marketing charities as a want rather than a need, are we contributing the kind of media that results in another three cups of tea?

    • That’s an incredibly good point Dave. I guess what I would say is that true junk food is reverse engineered to fit what people want (sugar). Marketing baby carrots like junk food is about taking a good authentic product and selling it based on the idea that it is inherently “want-able” rather than assuming that people will only buy it because they “should”.

      So I agree that simply selling donors what they want is a bad idea if what you’re selling isn’t actually good. But taking good charitable products/services/etc and packaging them in ways that assumes that donors actually “want” them, not just feel like they “should” support them is, at least, an interesting approach.