Chuck Robinson, Assistant Copy Chief
Chuck Robinson, Assistant Copy Chief

The pros and cons of generic advertising have surfaced again, this time with everyone getting bear hugs from shaggy “Sesame Street” Muppet characters.

Through the auspices of the Produce Marketing Association, marketers of fresh produce can use images of nine “Sesame Street” characters on packaging and in advertising at little cost. PMA made guidelines for using the characters available March 31.

During a video the announcer describes what he calls a unified campaign with roles for everyone in the fresh produce industry.

“This is big and different than anything done before. This isn’t just about putting a sticker on bags of fruit,” he said.

Todd Putman, chief marketing officer for Bakersfield, Calif.-based Bolthouse Farms and chairman of the PMA “Sesame Street” task force, said the partnership will produce an effective national campaign with strong retailer support.

The Packer’s national editor, Tom Karst, rounded up some interesting comments from a couple of industry leaders who were not drinking the “Sesame Street” Kool-Aid.

Roger Pepperl, marketing director of Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers, said generic advertising such as this would not help his company stand out.

The comments echoed comments he made in a 2005 column for The Packer, when he addressed the issue in the context of the Washington Apple Commission’s mandatory per-box fees for generic promotions, which were found unconstitutional by a federal district judge two years before.

In his 2005 column, he said apple grower-shippers could only survive in an age of increasing company consolidation with “strong, independent marketing by the grower-shippers themselves.”

In the competitive environment, companies need to hire the right people and stay focused, he said.

The fresh produce industry has dealt with generic advertising mostly in regard to grower assessments and free speech issues.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the marketing order and generic advertising for California peaches, plums and nectarines did not violate the First Amendment. In 2000, a federal judge in Fresno, Calif., backed the California Table Grape Commission’s assessment to pay for generic advertising.

Attorney Brian Leighton, who represented Delano Farms and The Susan Neill Fresh Fruit Co. on the losing side of that case, said his clients wanted to promote their own products, not those of their competitors.

“It’s like Coca-Cola and Pepsi being required to pay (assessments) to promote generic advertising for soda,” he said then.

Generic advertising got turned on its head in 2001, when the Supreme Court ruled the Mushroom Council’s generic advertising did violate the First Amendment.

In the aftermath of that decision, The Packer quoted John Davids, a partner in San Martin, Calif.-based B&D Mushrooms Inc., saying, “We’re a small farm and don’t really have the ability to promote our own label, so the generic promotions were very important.”

Again, all this history is couched in companies being required to pay for generic advertising. With the PMA “Sesame Street” partnership, companies are free to join or not join.

The earlier generic advertising battles were focused on single commodities or narrow groups of commodities.

The “Sesame Street” plan embraces all fresh fruits and vegetables. It does not seem to limit companies rising to the top in the same way as if all the companies were all marketing the same commodity.

I have sensed a reluctance for marketers to go big in promoting fresh produce. That is part of why the Let’s Move campaign has been so important, and that program seems to be helping increase produce consumption.

Of course, first lady Michelle Obama and the Partnership for A Healthier America have been key backers of Let’s Move and the PMA “Sesame Street” program, which was announced Oct. 31 at the White House.

The “Sesame Street” campaign seems a great extension of Let’s Move, reaching and training the eating habits of younger children and also getting the industry on the same page.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.