Food makers weigh in with ads

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"It's not our fault." That appears to be the undercurrent of some campaigns from food marketers amid the flap over fat.

Promotions from Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo put some of the blame on sedentary lifestyles. Other approaches push moderation and personal responsibility. And one fast-food chain appears well-positioned to gain from the controversy.

Subway, the rare fast-feeder with a successful low-fat menu line, created an ad campaign to promote health consciousness among teens. "They're the national marketer who showed the world the health issue is about weight," said Harry Balzer, VP at research company NPDFoodWorld. On Oct. 8, Subway will introduce an estimated $22 million teen effort with spots on UPN, WB, Fox, MTV, NBC and BET. Ads shot by kids feature teens talking about the food. Havas' Euro RSCG MVBMS, New York, handles.

"Teens had a much higher preference for our brand than other quick-service restaurants," said Chris Carroll, VP-marketing, Subway's franchisee advertising trust.

Pepsi's Quaker Oats is lead sponsor of the Marathon Kids Program in Texas, while its Frito-Lay supports kids programs at the YMCA. Frito also sent a video called "Sensible Snacking" to directors of school cafeterias and even to HBO.

Coca-Cola will expand its "Step With It" fitness program from three markets to more than 10. Coke also rolled out school vending machines with photos of kids from those schools engaged in physical activity.

Restaurant coalition The Center for Consumer Freedom created a magazine ad that showed a close-up photo of a protruding belly and carried the headline, "Did you hear the one about the fat guy suing the restaurants?"

"As outrageous as people will find [the ad], it pales in comparison to someone's nerve to sue restaurants because he ate too much," said a spokesman for the organization.

Also pushing personal responsibility, Novartis Consumer Health's Gerber Foods ran a print ad from Noble & Associates, Chicago, picturing a child with a bag of french fries alongside headlines about childhood obesity. "It's not about good food or bad food but about teaching parents to educate children," said Gerber CEO Frank Palantoni.

That challenge is more complex for fast-food outlets, said Subway's Mr. Carroll. "We can't fight [share] battle with the McDonald's, Burger Kings and Taco Bells of the world. What we see as a big opportunity is trying to communicate to parents the whole healthy eating piece."

He admits it's an uphill battle. "You might think its right thing to do, but will the kids want to eat the food?"

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