Big Food companies like to celebrate brand birthdays to manipulate us and get us to eat more food.

Big Food Loves Birthdays, But Should You?

A Happy Birthday Cake

Well I’m celebrating another birthday this month. I’ve gotten to the age where I don’t like to shout it from the rooftop, but I also appreciate the experiences, fun, and wisdom that each year brings. And of course I still enjoy the presents!

In all my years of birthdays, I’ve learned that I share my birth month with quite a number of celebrities. But this was the first year I found out I shared it with Oreo. Sigh.

Oreo celebrates its 100th birthday

Does it seem odd to anyone else that we celebrate the birthdays of food products? After all, it’s just food, and unhealthy food at that. It’s not like Oreo’s mother wants to do something special for her son. Or maybe Oreo’s siblings want to take their big brother out on the town to celebrate? No. These products are lifeless, inanimate brands. So why all the hoopla over Oreo’s birthday? You guessed it–Big Food’s thirst for fat profits.

So how do brands like Oreo profit off of birthdays? No, it’s not from the gifts they receive (although you’d be surprised at what some crafty, brand fanatics send into companies to help celebrate). Rather, Big Food uses brand birthdays to create multi-layered “events” that enable them to promote their brands, sell more processed food, and create powerful connections with consumers. Let’s take a look at Oreo’s 100th Birthday party as an example.

Generate Big In-Store Displays: One of the biggest reasons Big Food loves to celebrate brand birthdays is their ability to drive HUGE in-store displays with retailers. Not only do these displays help sell TONS of Oreo’s, but they also help the brand connect with more consumers in-store.

Limited Editions: Birthdays are also used by food manufacturers to launch special, limited edition varieties that help boost sales. Oftentimes these items can’t be shelved with regular items, so these new varieties force retailers to create special displays to promote brands like Oreo.

Oreo Birthday Cake Cookies

Public Relations Events: In our 24-hour, news-hungry world with thousands of media outlets, it’s surprising what qualifies as “news.” Unfortunately brand birthday parties like the one featured in this video link make the cut. Then they are reported on by the media as stories that fill up newscasts. If you don’t believe me, just search “Oreo birthday party” and you will get pages and pages of results.

Recipes: Big Food manufacturers love to come up with “signature recipes” to help create additional occasions for their products. A classic signature recipe is Kellogg’s Rice Krispies treats. This recipe was so popular, Kellogg’s launched a whole line of ready-to-eat snacks to cash on its popularity. The folks at Kraft are no slouch at this game, and they’ve created pages upon pages of recipes like the one pictured below, all with one simple goal: to get you eating more so Kraft can make more money.

Food manufacturers love to come up with special recipes to get you using their products more and more

Social Media: The goal of all food marketing is to make consumers “adore” brands (aka eat lots of it) and start sharing the brand with their friends and family. Social media is a perfect place to make this happen. On Twitter Oreo is making a splash with a Piñata contest where you can play and win free cookies. And it’s no surprise that Oreo’s birthday has a big presence on Facebook with a “Join the Movement” effort to help “set your inner kid loose.”

Oreo's 100th Birthday Celebration on Facebook to

This Facebook page also features an “Oreo Turns 100” video. As you can probably guess, this campaign “helps” us all “reclaim our inner kid” and gives us permission to eat Oreo cookies at any moment we’d like. Now isn’t that special?

Advertising: As icing on the proverbial birthday cake, Kraft launched new advertising behind Oreo’s 100th birthday event. Much like the Facebook effort, the message of this spot is that eating Oreos help us “reclaim that inner kid.” The commercial kicks off with a contentious Parent Teacher Organization meeting where arguing adults are quickly soothed by trays of Oreos that innocent children bring out for everyone to feast on.

Who knew cookies could be so powerful? Perhaps we should send some over to nuclear arms negotiators?

Now while I appreciate that Oreo hasn’t tried to dress itself up as healthy with false or misleading claims like “whole grains” or “no high fructose corn syrup,” the idea that cookies solve life’s problems and help you reclaim your childhood is absolutely absurd. But isn’t that also the honest truth about celebrating a cookie’s birthday? No, I’m not some grinch. I don’t begrudge anyone having a party or an occasional cookie–highly processed or not. What we do have to understand is we’re under attack. Big Food is looking for every way they can to work their unhealthy foods into our life with us smiling and agreeing the whole way. It’s very easy to get sucked in by these events and ads. I know I have fallen victim. But the more we rationally understand how food companies are trying to manipulate us, the better armed we are to make informed choices, say “no,” and stop following their Pied Piper’s tune.

So what’s the good news? Well, birthdays don’t last forever so this soon shall pass. Of course, as soon as I wrote this post I saw Kraft advertising the 75th birthday for Mac & Cheese. Ugh, not again!

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Big Food companies like to celebrate brand birthdays to manipulate us and get us to eat more food.

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. B. Baker

    First, Happy Birthday! Second, while I do agree with much of what you say, I hold no particular animosity toward the Oreo (not that it would mind, of course), It’s a cookie that I enjoy once in a great while and am fond of as a flavoring in Cookies and Cream ice cream; it was a great favorite of my mother. That said, I did laugh heartily on reading a recent New York Times report on the Oreo centennial preparation when an ad vice president was quoted as saying “ ‘Never before in the advertising have we showcased the need’ for Oreo in a ‘problem/solution’ format.”

    People, listen. Nobody needs an Oreo. It’s a cookie. People just like ’em. leave it at that.

    1. Bruce Bradley

      Thanks for your comment. I totally agree. I’ve eaten plenty of Oreos in my day (less now than I once did), and Oreo Ice cream can be a nice treat. The main point of my post was to be wary of “brand celebrations” of all sorts because they aren’t meant to just be fun. Rather, their main purpose is to sell more. I merely chose Oreo as the brand to feature because they made a pretty big deal about their 100th birthday, and I find their “eating a cookie will solve your adult problems” advertising pretty irksome. The world doesn’t need more encouragement to eat more to solve our problems. Too much of that type of thinking already exists.

      Thanks again for your comment, and I appreciate you checking out my blog.

      (Oh, also thank you for the birthday wishes.)

      1. Karen

        I had to laugh at this, “The main point of my post was to be wary of “brand celebrations” of all sorts because they aren’t meant to just be fun. Rather, their main purpose is to sell more.”

        Um….DUH! The point of any commercial, event, ad, for ANY product is to sell it. Beware! These ads are trying to make you BUY something! Huge news flash!

  2. Vikki Klask

    Happy Birthday! Great article! This is what I love about your blogs. No judgment. Just speaking the truth. You say, “As person who was on the other side (Big Food), here is a different perspective. This is what is really going on.”

    Sorry Oreo. No celebrating you in our family of 6 🙁 When we get an “Oreo” attack, we buy Organic Newman O’s. Our taste buds have been retrained for years, so eating an Oreo is not a pleasant experience anymore.

    1. Bruce Bradley

      Thanks, Vikki. I’m so glad you are enjoying my blog. Sometimes when I’m gutting out the latest blog post late at night, I wonder if it’s all worthwhile. I’m glad you believe it is.

      I no longer buy Oreos. Occasionally I will indulge when I’m out and I’ll buy something that has Oreos in it. As I’ve said many times on my blog—I’m not perfect…I just try to do my best to eat healthy, humanely, and sustainably. I’ve never tried the Organic Newman O’s version. Although I like the idea of organic, I imagine they have the same addictive taste of Oreos so I’m better off not having them around. (Unfortunately my taste buds can still fall victim to the taste, so it’s better off to just keep that kind of stuff out of the house.)

      Thanks again for your comment!

      Regards,

      Bruce

      PS – thanks for the birthday wishes!

      1. Kristen

        Love the organic Newman-Os, especially the chocolate filled versions. While they are far from health food, they do offer a more natural / chemical free option (and some are gluten free and vegan on top) to those wanting the cookie sandwich treat.

        1. Bruce Bradley

          Yes, they can be an option. Sounds like you already know the important watch out…just because it’s an organic cookie doesn’t mean it’s good for you. A cookie of any kind isn’t going to hurt you … just always remember it’s a treat.

  3. Karen

    Happy Birthday Bruce!

    As for celebrating phude – we do it by congratulating ourselves on the length of time it has been since we last “bought into the bs” (it has been at least 8 years for what had been infrequent oreos, intentionally uncapitalized, and their kin). If we want a cookie, we head for the kitchen and get out some butter, eggs, flour, sugar…. They win, hands down, with everybody. I haven’t met even a teenaged boy who will choose oreos over homemade, especially if still warm.

    We look at a new commercial product to eliminate in favour of a homemade or more life enhancing commercial version continually. We expect to eliminate a couple more big-profits-over-ethics brand names within a couple weeks. Yay Us!

  4. Karen

    Anyone else notice that the jingle for this starts with a phrase about how it “doesn’t matter how big you are….”? Maybe they mean how old you are. Or maybe they really do mean how BIG you are….and it really doesn’t matter to them, how big you get, as long as you scarf down enough oreos to make their profits big.

  5. Liz

    I was just at the grocery store buying food for the weekend because my daughter and her family are coming to visit. As I walked down the aisle with the Oreos I mused to myself that I am not an Oreo buying grandma. To the best of my knowledge, my granddaughter has never had one. My kids did, I did, but we’ve moved on. I won’t say I don’t occasionally crave one (like in the grocery store when I saw the display), and if they were in the house I’d definitely eat one, or two, or five. However, I don’t buy them, and frankly we’ve really pretty much moved on from the high fructose corn syrup, artificially flavored, artificially preserved, chemical laden stuff. I agree with the poster who talked about cookies from their own kitchen. Nabisco gets very little of our business anymore, in point of fact most of what we buy is as local as possible, and doesn’t come from the big food guys. We drink raw milk straight from a neighbor’s farm, eat veggies from our garden and the farmer’s market, eat meat we raised or bartered for as much as possible. This week we ate venison three times because my husband got a deer last fall. Dinner here most nights is a from scratch affair. We aren’t vegans, but we eat more like great grandma ate than like we ate as kids. Oh, and we don’t eat at fast food places either. My granddaughter wouldn’t have a clue what a MacDonald’s Happy Meal is.

  6. James

    I like your blog. I have a question that I don’t know if you have covered before in your blog. I lived overseas in Taiwan for 20 years, I married a local and my five kids were born and raised there. Over there, the candy and cookies are not nearly as sweet as in the US. After I had been there a few years, Mars came over with their products so American sweets were introduced by most Chinese, except the young usually, couldn’t take the intense sweetness of American candies. McDonald’s spent years getting laws changed so they could own their own restaurants in Taiwan, as a result when the laws were changed in 1982 they were the first of a storm of American fast food chains in Taiwan. I went to a seminar in a hospital on diabetes. They researchers there showed the rate of diabetes in the population, it was an upwards line that got steeper and steeper after the mid 1980’s. (When US sweets and fast food restaurants became common place in Taiwan.)
    Now back in the states, my wife and I can’t eat out at chain restaurants, the food is WAY TOO SALTY.
    Is this part of the food industry’s tricks, to make their products extremely sweet and salty to addict the population to it? Kind of like the frog in the pot of water, slowly boiling the water and the frog just dies without trying to escape the pot? Have they slowly sweetened and salted their products until people’s taste buds need that kind of stimulation for satisfaction – and then addiction?

    1. Bruce Bradley

      Thanks for your comment, James. When Big Food companies are making their highly processed foods, salt and sugar are two of the cheapest ingredients they can use to add flavor. As you allude to, these flavors are also very addictive. Certainly Big Food companies and fast food chains want us coming back to buy/eat more and more. So what we’ve seen is an escalation in the levels of salt and sugars in our foods. Is it a trick? I’m not sure that by itself it is a trick. But when fast food companies make their food seem like a fun, cool, or smart choice when it’s anything but … now that’s a trick.

      I think what your experience points out is when you grow up/spend time in a culture that doesn’t serve much (if any) processed food how extremely salty our fast foods, like McDonald’s, can taste. In essence, processed food eaters start to become immune to the taste and crave more and more. It’s easy to see how this spiral of taste addiction can have very negative consequences.

  7. Ted

    Hi Bruce, I just read this as my first article on your blog (of what I look forward to being many more), after coming to it via your interview on the “100 Days of Real Food” blog. I realize my comments are about two years after its posting, but thought, what the heck, I’ll write anyway. “100 Days” has generated a lot of attention around here, as I live in Charlotte as do those bloggers. BTW, as an aside (after reading your bio above), my wife worked at Davidson for a decade. A great place to spend your college years!

    I’m an absolute newbie to the “real food” movement, motivated both by being dad to three young ones, as well as far into middle age. When I say new, I mean that I haven’t even made any real significant changes yet….you might say I’m at the stage of Just Beginning to Know What I Don’t Know. I feel like — against all reason — they’re going to have to pry my bag of Cheetos from my cold, dead hands; in a sense I dread giving up all (or most all) the comfort food I live off of. Maybe in that sentence, I should put “food” in quotes. But I know I’ll eventually get closer to the goal, even if only little by little (hopefully before a heart surgeon orders me to)…..like you emphasize, so much better to “meet someone where they are” rather than let the Perfect be the enemy of the Good. Thankfully, my wife’s sister, a refugee from corporate America, is now an organic farmer, so her influence has been pervasive too.

    Just one comment specific to this Oreo article I wanted to share……I thought you’d get to this observation & was surprised you didn’t include it: I suspect another big reason they like to create all kinds of warm & fuzzy feelings about being 75 or 100 or whatever-years-old is because nostalgia is a POWERFUL tool (even though most of us acknowledge that we look back with rose-colored glasses). We therefore, so their thinking goes, equate the product with being good & wholesome & as American as apple pie, just by virtue of its longevity. And even if the product never WAS considered healthy, it’s STILL useful for their bottom line if we’re persuaded to eat/drink it again “just for old time’s sake”. (Admit it, have you ever — like me — eaten some junk as an adult you hadn’t enjoyed since you were a kid, just for that reason?)

    1. Bruce Bradley

      Thanks for your comment, Ted. I just started back at blogging after a long hiatus. So good to see your comment and that you’re enjoying my blog. So cool that you’re from the Charlotte area and know about Davidson. It truly is a special place!

      I hope you enjoy the new direction of my blog. I think it will be right up your alley. I totally get that you not ready or maybe willing to give up your “food” yet. But hopefully we can inspire you to make little changes that over time will add up to a much healthier lifestyle. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We didn’t create this highly processed food world we’re in overnight. So, it’s not unreasonable to give yourself some time and step by step move in a healthier direction.

      Regarding the Oreo ad, you’re totally right. Nostalgia and the emotions that go with it are one more way Big Food hooks us. Food can evoke powerful memories, and tapping into those feelings is a way to get us all to revisit the junk we ate as a child — yes, I’m guilty of that too. I don’t know about you, but when I was a child, eating junk food or fast food was reserved as a treat or special occasion. Unfortunately those special treats and occasions have multiplied geometrically so the average kid is surrounded by constant bad food choices. Hopefully if we’re all a little more aware of what’s going on, we can start to turn the tide…slowly but surely!

      Thanks again for your comment and visiting my blog!

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