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Former executive pitches marketing carrots like Coke

Daniel Malloy

Published: Friday, June 8 2012 2:51 p.m. MDT

WASHINGTON -- How do you make carrots cool?

A typical parent's conundrum has become a nationwide concern as soaring obesity rates, especially among children, have become a national health crisis. According to a former Coca-Cola Co. executive speaking this week at a public health conference on soda, the answer lies in healthy food producers developing emotional attachments to their product the way Coke has.

Todd Putnam spent nearly four years marketing the sugary drinks that are blamed in part for the nation's poor health and lately have been targeted by elected leaders, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his proposed regulations on soda portion size.

Other restrictions on marketing for children are under consideration, but Putnam said blame falls in part on marketers of more nutritious foods for allowing "eat your vegetables" to become an unsavory notion.

''Healthy food is doing a sucky job," Putnam said in an interview. "So it's not just blame this on the soda marketers. ... They have an accountability and a responsibility, but so does healthier fare and they're not doing a good job."

Putnam proposed better in-store branding and marketing for healthy foods to rival the dazzling displays of soda and chips. Television ads and viral Internet videos are a must. He said the "Got Milk" campaign is an example of an effective effort for a healthy product.

Putnam spoke Thursday at the National Soda Summit, a conference put on by the Center for Science in the Public Health Interest featuring panels and speeches from lawmakers and academics on how to combat the country's addiction to carbonated sugar water.

From 1997-2000 Putnam worked at Coca-Cola, serving as head of U.S. marketing for carbonated beverages and later as vice president for innovation for the Coke brand.

He did not attack his former employer for its marketing tactics, even while blaming its products for contributing to Americans' obesity. Instead he encouraged healthy food industries to recruit marketers and spend more on promoting their product, acknowledging the vegetable industry probably cannot match soda's billions-strong marketing budget.

Putnam, now a marketing consultant, showed the crowd a cheeky marketing campaign he helped develop for baby carrots. The television ads are satires of spots for Mountain Dew or Hardee's: a woman shooting carrots out of a gun at a man flying off a cliff in a rocket-powered shopping cart; a woman eating her carrots sensuously to the sound of a Barry White-style narrator.

The tagline: "Eat 'em like junk food."

Daniel Malloy writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: dmalloy(at)ajc.com.

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