Milk needs to advertise, but bananas don’t?

Via Tyler Cowen, Matt Yglesias asks:

Why is it that nobody’s marketing broccoli and bananas? This stuff is sold in stores, in exchange for money. Presumably there are for-profit enterprises out there with a vested interest in selling more.

Tyler mentions the “Got Milk” campaign as part of his argument that broccoli and bananas lack “branding”; I take his meaning to be that those two particular items are too staid for their agents to invest marketing dollars in. Anecdotally, that seems unlikely– other consumer goods that lack intrinsic excitement are often over-marketed in order to increase their perceived status. I wager that toilet paper advertisements are some of the most frequent on TV, and among the most common within certain targeted programs. Yet, that is because- not in spite of the fact- that toilet paper is clearly not one of the more exciting consumer goods.

Using the “Got Milk” campaign as an example, I feel the opposite is the case here– that is, sometimes products which want to overcome (at least partial) negative or staid brands choose advertising as a vehicle for delivering counter messages in support of themselves. In the case of “Got Milk”, I personally perceived that entire campaign as the milk lobby’s attempt to quash the disparate, growing negative brand surrounding milk.

Part of the negative brand surrounding milk is a result of direct competitors, which is another clear motivation for using advertising to differentiate. While soy and almond milks have gained popularity, with soy in particular slowly shedding its purely “health” brand, bananas and broccoli have no such emerging competition; companies are not likely to introduce innovative, healthier new fruits and vegetables anytime soon.

While advertising can certainly signal vested interest, it can often be deployed as “make-up” for a product; in the absence of advertising then, it may not be that the distributors of bananas and broccoli have no vested interest in their products; just that their products are successful enough, or unique enough, on their own without the help of overt advertising.

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