Pitchmen with pitchforks

Fast food restaurants are getting the farmers that grow their food to sell it too

Using the qualifier “natural” to sell food to a hungry public is nothing new. But mass-market food advertisers have recently taken the strategy to new heights by getting the people that actually grow the food to sell it, too. A new McDonald’s television ad, which opens with a farmer carrying a bushel of potatoes, drives home the idea that their fries are made with the same potatoes you mash at home. Wendy’s new TV ads show farmer Jim Carter eating the strawberries he grows that end up in the fast-food chain’s new salad. And the latest Lay’s ad campaign features the potato farmers who provide the produce for the company’s chips. (They also include a “chip tracker” on their website, where customers can enter a product code found on bags in order to find out exactly where the potatoes inside were harvested.) The underlying message seems to be, “Our food is made with food. And it’s grown by real farmers.”

“They’re iconic,” says Alan Middleton, a professor of marketing at the Schulich Executive Education Centre at York University. “We believe farmers are good people, unless you’re in the Prairies, in which case you know they’re businessmen just like everybody else, but we have this iconic view of rural romanticism.” Middleton also cites a growing interest in local food and an increasing awareness that “healthiness and weight aren’t just about exercising and not eating; they’re about the right kind of eating.”

“The whole movement,” he adds, “is growing massively and marketers are onto it.” Perhaps more importantly, the ads are a reaction from a fast-food industry that has come under intense criticism in recent years from health lobby groups and even governments and school systems. If food makers, who spent $11.3 billion in the U.S. last year selling their products, can at least plant the idea that their food isn’t some concoction cooked up in a lab, they might be able to gain public support to help fend off critics.

Using farmers, often rustically clad in overalls in the middle of their idyllic fields, to do the hawking is savvy, but it might not be enough to convince an ever-suspecting audience that mass-produced food is good for them.

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