Firms cash in on edible advertising

The letter "M" printed on a piece of chocolate

Kai Ryssdal: When you walk go into a grocery store, there are ads everywhere -- there are ads on the milk cartons, ads on the floor, there are ads on the very shopping carts we push around. Sometimes it seems like advertising is consuming us. But now, we're consuming advertising. Science lets us change the color and sometimes even the shapes of the foods we grow. And Madison Avenue has the recipe.

Sally Herships reports.


Sally Herships: The Avril family is having hamburgers for dinner. Sounds typical, but the Avrils -- Jenny, Drew and their 6-year-old son Will -- are a test household in Brooklyn. That means they try out new products for advertisers.

Mom: William, have you ever heard of genetic engineering?

Will: Genetic what?

Genetic engineering lets scientists modify the characteristics of crops like corn to make them, say, more pest resistant. But the Avrils' dinner was genetically engineered -- by advertisers.

Mom: William, do you want to say hi to Mr. Pickle?

Will: Yes!

Check this out. As Will's burger cooks, a picture of a pickle appears on the burger. It gets darker the longer it stays over the flame. When the meat reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit Mr. Pickle looks like he's waving.

Will: Is Mr. Pickle waving at me? Hi Mr. Pickle! Hi!!

A real pickle on Will's burger, you can understand. But an ad for pickles?

I asked Jason Torchinsky, what's going on?

Jason Torchinsky: Scientists are now able to alter the appearance of food, in a way they never have before. For advertisers, it's a whole new medium.

Jason Torchinsky has written the definitive book on advertising.

Torchinsky: This new technology, synthetic biology, means we can now engineer naturally occurring bacteria and have them moved or grouped together in patterns. And they can then secrete colors visible to the naked eye.

Like the pickle ad, on the burger. But how about ads in your ice cream? Earlier this year, Cornell's computational synthesis lab came out with a 3-D food printer. It squeezes mushy foods like vanilla caramel fudge through a syringe to create images in food.

Lee Silver: So this ice-cream maker created a co-branded line of cones with coupons inside the ice cream. You take a bite of your ice cream and there's a secret code. It's like something out of Willy Wonka.

Lee Silver is a market researcher at Nigel-Gibbons. He specializes in consumers and food.

Herships: What are the coupons for?

Silver: More ice cream, of course.

So will consumers eat food with the new ads? To find out I headed to my local grocery store.

Herships: Would you buy this corn?

Tired mom, shopping after work: I'm sorry, but 20 percent isn't worth having to stare at ads at dinner.

Herships: Would you buy this steak? It's on sale.

Younger single guy: No way. It's branded onto the middle of the steak. Are you kidding me?

But back in Brooklyn, the Avril family is happy to serve up dinner with ads. They like getting a discount on dinner. And Will Avril likes playing with his food. Exactly what advertisers hoped for.

In New York, I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace.*


Ryssdal: Crazy story, huh? What's the date today?

*This is our April Fool's Day story.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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