Sexy Tomatoes

Originally posted at Kitchen Dancing on July 16, 2007. View the original post here.  

Not long ago NPR did a story about the Florida Tomato Committee, who hired an advertising firm to create a new image for the little red crop with an identity problem (is it a fruit or is it a vegetable? You call it tomato, I call it tomato…). Why do Florida tomatoes need an advertising agency? It seems that in the wake of recent storms and distribution problems, grocery stores began ordering fewer and fewer tomatoes. So Florida farmers were suffering crop damage from the weather and lower than normal demand. The reporter painted a grim picture of Florida fields, stained red with rotting tomatoes.

The story compared this tomato makeover to a few other famous food marketing campaigns from milk mustaches, to the other white meat and beef (it’s what’s for dinner tonight). Up to this point I had never considered the meaning of marketing vegetables. In the case of tomatoes, they are such a staple in my diet that I have a hard time imagining a need to advertise them. Even with my years working in communications, I don’t know that I would have thought of advertising as the silver bullet to move more tomatoes from the vine to the table. I can’t help but wonder, is advertising really a solution, or is it a symptom of a much larger problem?

Last summer my wife and I joined a local community supported agriculture farm (also called a CSA). At CSAs you pay in advance, buying a share of whatever the farm produces that season, for better or worse. This model gives farmers the upfront capitol they need to plant and manage the farm, and a guaranteed market for the food they grow. Each week between May and November we pull into Brookfield Farm to pick up our weekly allotment of freshly picked, organically grown veggies. The folks running the farm knew in advance who they were growing for and could predict how much to plant and how much to pick each week. Little was wasted. On those occasions when there was a bumper crop the farmers welcomed us into the fields to pick as much as we wanted. The farm grew a variety of tomatoes from thick skinned meaty sauce tomatoes, to cherry tomatoes, slicing tomatoes, and rainbow colored heirloom tomatoes. There was never a problem moving these tomatoes, they were always in high demand. There was never to ask the tomato to be something it was not.

How do you give tomatoes a face-lift? How do you create a buzz about a vegetable? You could promote its heath benefits – but everything that is healthy one month is dangerous the next. You could create a catchy jingle that will get lodged in the public’s collective consciousness, destined to be whistled on long commutes to the supermarket – but what rhymes with tomato? Tomatoes can’t drive – so fast cars are out of the question. Tomatoes can’t act – so guest appearances become a challenge. What is left?

Sex, of course.

The Florida Tomato Committee wants to remind you how sexy the tomato can be. Their new ad campaign seems more interested in getting tomatoes into your bedroom than your kitchen. Acording to a Florida Tomato Committee spokesman, the Florida tomato’s sexy character is based on its smooth bright red skin, it supple curves, and its sweet taste.

Some might think of this campaign as a joke. Humor sells after all. But the Florida Tomato Committee is serious about their tomatoes. What was not reported in the NPR story was just how serious they are. In what can only be described as a mob-esque move, the Florida Tomato Committee has been doing everything it can to keep ugly tomatoes out of the spotlight.

The Florida Tomato Committee is a marketing association that manages and regulates tomato growing and distribution across the southeast. A few years back the Santa Sweets company, responding to customer complaints about the quality of mass produced tomatoes, went back to their roots. To create a better tomato they mixed an heirloom variety with a modern mass produced tomato plant. They created a heartier tomato, good for shipping nationwide, but that retained its strong sweet taste. The only drawback to this blend was that the tomato exhibited the wrinkly, home-grown look, that heirloom tomatoes are (in)famous for. In a word, they were ugly. But they were good. Ugly but good. The Santa Sweet company celebrated the unique look of their new tomato variety and dubbed it “The UglyRipe.” However, the Florida Tomato Committee did not like the look of these new tomatoes. For a few years the Florida Tomato Committee let Santa Sweet ship the tomatoes, and the UglyRipes were wildly popular. But wrinkly tomatoes can’t be sexy tomatoes, and for the past year the Florida Tomato Committee has not allowed Santa Sweet to ship the UglyRipe variety out of Florida.

When does an article on tomatoes begin to sound like a fashion show expose? When is a tomato to ugly to be called a tomato? Big business agricultural techniques have created the need for big business advertising, and together they have created an idealized, sexualized tomato. Keep an eye out for that curvy red figure on your grocer’s shelves, or bypass the marketplace for the local fields where the tomatoes are ugly. Ugly and good.

For more information check out:
Florida Tomato Committee
Santa Sweet “UglyRipe” Tomatoes
Tomato – fruit or veggie?

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