Assessing 5 A Day’s Impact

Five A Day is celebrating its fifth birthday as a national campaign. Five years from now, I would like to see it as a thriving organization having real impact, not only on the sales of fruits and vegetables but on the health of Americans. Despite many good intentions, some excellent and exciting programs, and the support of the National Cancer Institute, getting there won’t be easy.

The core of the problem is that the Produce for Better Health Foundation, the non-profit foundation which spearheads 5 A Day along with NCI, somehow has come to be seen as a commodity promotion group, not a charity. If donations to PBH happen to help any individual business in the long term, that would be incidental to its purpose of increasing the health of Americans by encouraging diets rich in fruits and vegetables.

For five years the foundation has been urging produce people to contribute to 5 A Day for business reasons. These entreaties have generally failed. First, the foundation is not raising enough money to effectively run a national program. Second, a shockingly high proportion of the money raised is coming from individual commodity promotion groups or industry trade associations. In other words, the money in both cases is being transferred from industry activities to 5 A Day.

On the whole, very few produce companies contribute to 5 A Day. Now, if businesspeople have been told for five years about this great opportunity to build their business through 5 A Day, why don’t more contribute? The answer is that 5 A Day is not about building anyone’s business. There is no way to ensure that the benefits of expanded produce sales go to the specific companies that contribute to the program.

So 5 A Day must be promoted, honestly, as a charity — as a chance to help the country by teaching people to eat in a more healthful manner.

The first thing to understand about PBH is that it has perilously small resources to run a national program. In a year, the organization spends less than Coca-Cola does in a day to promote its product.

In 1990, PRODUCE BUSINESS ran an interview with Ray Cole, who at the time was Sunkist’s director of marketing services. Cole had worked extensively with an ad agency to determine what level of advertising would increase per capita consumption of western oranges. The answer: twenty million dollars per year, just for western oranges, in 1990.

PBH should lower expectations that consumption patterns can be changed with a budget of a million to 1.5 million dollars per year. The organization must let the industry, and the outside world, know that to increase the health of Americans by encouraging the proper diet, it simply needs more resources.

Instead, I’m concerned that the foundation may be shifting into a public relations mode under the mistaken belief that, if it can show all the free publicity it has gotten and how many people respond correctly when asked how many servings of produce they should eat, the industry will support it more.

When PBH trumpets the millions of dollars in value of public service announcements it has received, it is overstating the case. Television time, like produce is highly perishable, and TV stations negotiate to sell all the time they have before it disappears. The haphazard scheduling of PSA’s, where they appear at the discretion of the stations, reduces their value.

People will hear these numbers in the millions of dollars and expect results commensurate with those millions of dollars. When produce consumption patterns don’t change in line with these levels of expenditures, people will conclude that 5 A Day is a bad program and won’t support it. This would be a tragedy for the industry and the country.

At every stage, PBH needs to be scrupulous about its claims. Few industry people are willing to step up to the plate and be critical, but they know how to keep their hands in their pockets. Recently, for example, 5 A Day has been promoting a program they call the 5 A Day Destination Stop. It’s a fine promotion with a big banner, aprons, signage, etc. PBH did a “study” and found that if retailers do this program, sales will increase.

As any merchandiser knows, sales always rise when one does an extensive promotion. The relevant question, of course, is do sales increase MORE when one promotes 5 A Day than if one did an identical promotion for something else?

Despite what skeptics think, there is a real chance for success for 5 A Day. Those who point to things like the fact that people still smoke and use that as “proof” that health-oriented messages don’t work, miss the point. Sure, people still smoke, but the incidence of smoking has declined substantially since the Surgeon General’s report in 1964.

Indeed the nuances of the smoking situation point out exactly how exciting an opportunity this is for the produce industry.

Smoking has become, predominantly, a habit of the lower socio-economic classes. The poor are, generally, the slowest to absorb and act on any public health message. Wouldn’t it be terrific for the produce industry to set up a program to teach the less affluent and less educated how they can eat right and thus improve their health? And isn’t this the kind of program that non-industry organizations would most likely support?

The truth is that with the slim commodity market margins of produce companies, this industry will never be able to raise, on a voluntary basis, the amounts needed to move the consumption needle. In fact, all studies show flat consumption growth.

There has been work done on targeting an individual market to prove the efficacy of advertising in increasing produce consumption. I suggest that this test market strategy is enhanced with a substantial outreach to the poor and uneducated. Let the industry provide the seed money and prove that this program can help poor people live healthier lives, then take the results to the press. Let America know that we have a strategy that has been tested and works to reduce hypertension, diabetes and all the debilitating illnesses that increase expenditures for Welfare and Medicaid and contribute to the cycle of poverty.

This industry could be at the forefront of a new age of helping people. By teaching people how to eat, we will empower them to make their own lives better, as we make America Healthier.