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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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This appalled me. I was on my way home when I heard the beginning and middle of it but turned the car off to go in and join my husband for dinner instead of listening to the end. Later,reading the local Seven Days publication I was becoming further irritated that there is a debate about raw milk sales when so-called hamburgers are be stamped with "naturally occuring bacteria" to form an anitmated waving Mr. Pickle. I decided- "That's it! It is time for me to voice my opinion". I start taking notes, to get my facts in order, the date of the Market Place episode, 4/1/11, I write. Oh, oh, oh?! Thank the heavens above! But still how close to possible is this? Too close, way too close and yes we are still having a heated debate about raw milk, naturally occurring raw milk. What gives? Thank goodness this story struck so many nerves, may it never come to pass! Good one, M.P. That will teach me to get out the car before the end of the show.

Cant believe I fell for it! I was thinking, "wow, mr pickle is a great way to prevent undercooked beef"

Thanks goodness I listened to this all the way through - the more I listened, the more upset I got. Obviously hit a bunch of buttons with a lot of folks. Snaps!

I was just looking this story up to share with my fiance!!!! You got me!!!!!!!!!! I was so disturbed by this story!!!! Thank goodness its not real.

Ok, you TOTALLY got me with this one. 100 friends on Facebook are lining up to like my gullible status update on this story. Good one Kai. :-)

You sooo got me on this! Hook, line and sinker! And I'm not that easy to fool... Good job - really creative!

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