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Are new ads for peanuts effective or just plain nutty?

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Ads touting the health benefits of peanuts are cropping up in cities like New York and Chicago. (Image courtesy of Lawler Ballard Van Durand)

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The National Peanut Board believes that consumers are ready for a positive message about peanuts. (Image courtesy of Lawler Ballard Van Durand)

Lorielle Mallue recently saw a puzzling ad on the subway. It was a glossy picture of two bare-chested, graying men striding across a beach, surfboards tucked under their arms, as waves rolled in the distance. The tagline read, “Peanuts: Energy for the Good Life.”

What surfing has to do with the snack, Mallue can’t say. She just knows that she’s heard reports of salmonella contamination of peanut products. As a precaution, she cut peanut butter from her smoothies, only to return to the condiment after the hysteria started to die down.

“I thought it was an odd way to market peanuts,” says Mallue, a 32-year-old college administrator from New York City. “I just assumed it was a reaction to the scare.”

Mallue’s assumption is wrong. The ads have nothing to do with the contamination controversy, and some crisis management experts say that’s a problem. Bankrolled by the National Peanut Board, they are an attempt to attract health-conscious consumers by emphasizing peanuts’ energy-boosting benefits. To this end, the board, a research and promotional organization that represents peanut farmers, is highlighting images of an elderly man pushing his grandchild in a wheelbarrow, teenagers surfing down a sand dune and children dangling from a tire swing.

It’s a pivotal time for peanut farmers and manufacturers. The industry is roiling from a salmonella scandal that has resulted in one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history, affecting everything from doughnuts to ice cream and pet food. It is centered on the Peanut Corp. of America, a food processor that the Food and Drug Administration says knowingly shipped tainted products to stores. So far, the contamination has sickened nearly 700 people and has been linked to nine deaths. The crisis could cost the peanut industry as much as $1 billion in lost sales, according to the Georgia Peanut Commission.

To stanch the bleeding, the National Peanut Board is accentuating the positive in its marketing. Officials say their research shows it is important to provide an upbeat message at a time when the industry has been rocked by bad publicity.

“We do know that the timing was not off on this and that consumers felt OK and positive,” says Bob Coyle, managing director of Lawler Ballard Van Durand, the marketing firm that created the ads. “Most people realize that this is isolated to one particular manufacturer. The message is out there. And we feel that consumers want to also hear the positive news about peanuts and peanut butter.”

The ads have been in the works for a long time. The $4 million campaign was developed in coordination with Coyle’s firm over a two-year period—long before the current scare. In fact, the ads, which are running on television, subways and taxis in cities like New York and Chicago and in health and wellness magazines, make no mention of the salmonella outbreak.

The only alteration that the board made in its rollout of the new campaign was to include an event in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. It invited peanut farmers from across the country to hand out samples of their products and answer questions that commuters had about the contamination.

“Our farmers needed to let America know that a terrible trust had been broken, and that we were all impacted,” says Raffaela Marie Fenn, the board’s president and managing director.

Veteran consultants who have handled similar food-related crises question the timing of the campaign and its message.

“I would have advised them to suspend this campaign,” says Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management. “Telling people peanuts are good does nothing whatsoever. It seems like contradiction because most people are thinking, Shouldn’t they be talking about safety?”

At the moment, consumers don’t care about the salutary benefits of peanuts, they want to be sure that eating peanut products won’t make them sick, critics argue.

“What I want to know now is, What can you tell me to reassure me that when I open my jar of Skippy, I’m not gonna croak,” says David Bartlett, a crisis management expert and a senior vice president at Levick Strategic Communications.

Instead, many crisis management advisers believe that the board should emphasize reform and reassurance. Consumers should be told that the problems that enabled the Peanut Corp. of America to allow contaminated products to enter the marketplace are being fixed and that compromised products have been recalled, according to Daniel Laufer, professor of marketing at Yeshiva University.

“The crisis will be a short-term crisis, as long as the message is clear that this is limited to products from the Peanut Corp. of America,” Laufer says.

To be sure, the board has tried to get that message out in other ways. Its Web site features information about the recall, and the group arranged for an open letter from growers decrying the Peanut Corp. of America’s actions to appear in USA Today.

Critics of the campaign laud those efforts but say the rest of the board’s message should mirror what is still considered the gold standard in crisis management—Tylenol. In 1982, seven people died after taking Tylenol laced with potassium cyanide. Though sales dropped, they rebounded a year later, thanks to a comprehensive response from Johnson & Johnson, the drug’s manufacturer. The company posted a reward for the killer, pulled products from shelves and reintroduced a new line of triple-sealed packages that addressed safety concerns.

Crisis management veterans say the National Peanut Board’s ads fall short of that benchmark. It’s not that they provoke a negative reaction among consumers; they just don’t put to rest any lingering fears.

Raquel Grossman is the type of consumer that the board needs to reach. Grossman, 37, complains that information about the recall has been muddled. A mother of two, she banished peanut butter products from her pantry in the wake of the crisis and stopped buying candy with peanuts. Grossman hasn’t seen the ads, but she isn’t interested in the health effects of peanuts. She wants to hear a simple message.

“I just want a list of all the brands that are contaminated,” says Grossman, who lives in New York. “Maybe they don’t know yet, but that’s what I’d like to see.”

But the ads resonate with some consumers.

Katie Zien, a 27-year-old graduate student in Chicago, is a fan of the marketing effort. Zien hadn’t been much of a peanut eater. She associated peanuts with the salty cocktail nuts that her grandfather liked to serve. After seeing the ads on a subway, however, she’s ready to abandon her old prejudices.

“They worked for me,” says Zien. “They were kind of homey, and I’d never thought of peanuts as being a healthy snack. Now I’m rethinking my desire to eat them.”

E-mail: bal2137@columbia.edu