Health Ads Gone Wrong. What a Poorly Designed NYC Breakfast Advertisement Can Teach Parents

by Charles Platkin, PhD

The other day I noticed an interesting advertisement in a New York City subway. The ad showed an upside-down croissant with a sail inserted to make it look like a sailboat, along with the slogan, “WIND IN YOUR SAILS! FREE. HEALTHY BREAKFAST IN THE CLASSROOM.”  (See image here:×784.jpg )

At first glance I thought it was an advertisement for a bakery. I certainly didn’t think it was going to be an ad for school children and their parents, put out by the New York City Department of Education and Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. Both organizations offer wonderful programs and often have a positive impact on healthy eating.

That’s why I was surprised to see this ad, and wondered if it was a mistake. If they wanted to capture children’s attention with unhealthy food, wouldn’t they have been better off showing an image of a doughnut? How many little kids (in the Breakfast in the Classroom program or not) actually know what a croissant is? This is one of three posters created for the program; both of the others show healthier images.

What is Healthy? Is a Croissant So Bad?
First, let’s take a peek at the term “healthy.” Under Merriam-Webster’s definition of healthy you’ll see phrases such as “free from disease or pain” or “beneficial to one’s physical, mental, or emotional state; conducive to health.” Not sure a croissant fits in here.

It’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t have the occasional croissant, but what kind of message does it send to tell children and parents that a croissant is a healthy breakfast? It can be hard enough for parents to get their kids to eat fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. But when a croissant is defined as healthy by the New York City Department of Education, it’s essentially a stamp of approval saying that a croissant is OK to eat — whenever. And while this particular croissant may meet NYC DOE standards, the photo doesn’t tell us that. The reality is that a croissant can have as many as 500-600 calories — much more than a kid should eat for breakfast.

Food Advertising Stimulates Either Unhealthy or Healthy Eating
There is a plethora of research demonstrating that images of unhealthy foods stimulate unhealthy eating.  A meta-analysis in Obesity Reviews demonstrated that children exposed to unhealthy food images in marketing showed a significant increase in unhealthy food consumption.  How many, for example, saw that ad and thought, “Wow, I could really go for a croissant right now.”

The good news is that there is also strong research demonstrating that images of healthy foods can increase the consumption of healthy foods.

What Experts Say about NYC DOE’s Advertisement


What Experts Say about NYC DOE’s Advertisement

We reached out to several experts in the food policy and practice world to get their thoughts and opinions on the NYC DOE’s poster. Here is what they had to say:

“I’m in favor of kids getting breakfast in schools. It saves lots of problems for parents and ensures that kids start the day with some food in their stomachs. It’s wonderful that the New York City Schools are doing this. With that said, the devil is in the details. I assume that all breakfasts meet USDA nutrition standards.

But croissants? These can be delicious—all that butter–but I wouldn’t exactly call them “healthy” and I’m wondering whose bright idea it was to choose that item to display. Looking at the menus for December, they are largely grain-based—bread, granola, tortillas, bagels, cereals, and the like—along with fruit and milk.   I think they look pretty good—they certainly could look a lot worse–but the proof is in the eating. Some parents will hate these breakfasts (too much sugar, too many packages, not enough protein). Others ought to be grateful. Ideally, cooks would be making delicious hot breakfasts for kids in school but that isn’t going to happen and from my standpoint this is a reasonable compromise. Presumably, kids who ate breakfast at home won’t need or take these items. I’d like to see them in action to really get an idea of how this is working.

Marion Nestle, PhD
Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health
New York University

“Well, I am a huge proponent of universal school breakfasts in low-income schools and have been very supportive of the improved nutrition standards for all school meals and snacks as part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. I must admit, however, that putting a croissant as the featured food in this poster was a very odd choice. I imagine there are croissants on the market that are small enough, and perhaps made with less fat and some whole grains, that would fit into the nutrition standards, but it still isn’t what I would have chosen to feature in an ad.  It would have made more sense to feature fresh fruit in the poster, as increasing whole fruit is one of the improvements that has been made to the breakfast.

What this poster represents is the dilemma that faces food service directors everywhere.  They want children to be excited about the taste of the food, so they want it to look appetizing, but they also need to let adults know about the nutritional quality of the food. This often means they are featuring foods that kids like (pizza, macaroni and cheese, chicken fingers, and apparently croissants) but that adults think of as unhealthy. I am always listening to parents complain that school lunches aren’t any better than they used to be because it’s still pizza, macaroni and cheese, and flavored milk. It’s tiring to have to keep explaining that the pizza now has a whole grain crust, the cheese is likely low fat, and that the flavored milk is all non-fat.”

Marlene B. Schwartz, PhD, Director, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, Professor, Human Development and Family Studies, University of Connecticut

“‘Wind in Your Sales” probably doesn’t mean anything to kids today unless you’re growing up on the coast taking junior sailing lessons in the local regatta. That particular metaphor is very outdated unless it’s used on Sponge Bob. Visually – a croissant floating in a boat may create some visual interest but it clearly implies eating croissants is a good thing and especially in summertime, that is if you’re on a boat.  Both of these issues do nothing to support the main print message about…free healthy breakfast.”

-Christina Zarcadoolas, PhD,  Healthy Literacy Expert and Professor of Linguistics, Hunter College, City University of New York

“When confronting food insecurity, we consistently conflate ‘any food’ with ‘good food.’ That’s a serious mistake, since the leading health problems among the food insecure are not muscle wasting and overt starvation, but rather obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases related to excess calories, sugar, salt, and all the wrong kinds of fat- and deficiencies of vegetables, fruits, and many nutrients. The notion that a croissant is the right response to a hungry child’s need for breakfast is terribly misguided. A croissant is a treat when visiting Paris, perhaps, but it is very far from an ideal breakfast.”

-David L. Katz, MD, MPH, Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center Griffin Hospital

“…after having just reviewed the literature on breakfast, I would certainly agree with the general claim that a healthy breakfast aids school performance, not to mention seems to have life-prolonging properties. There is, though, of course, the question of what exactly IS a ‘healthy’ breakfast. A croissant as shown on the still image isn’t it though!”

-Charles Spence, PhD, Professor and Experimental Psychologist, University of Oxford in England.

What The NYC DOE Says about Their Advertisement

DOE’s Statement (From DOE Spokesperson: Toya Holness): “New York City’s students are taught not to judge a book by its cover, and its adults should too – these are healthy, low-sodium, whole wheat croissants.”

Additional response from DOE: “NYC DOE’s SchoolFood serves approximately 900,000 meals each day that meet and exceed the U.S. Department of Agriculture Nutrition Standards for School Meals and offers students a variety of menu options to choose from. The goal of this ad campaign is to let families know what healthy options are available at school, and to raise awareness around the importance of making smart choices to support an active and healthy life. The whole wheat, low sodium croissant is one of several items we offer students, and the subway campaign includes posters of four different menu items, including photos of milk, fruit, and an egg and cheese sandwich.”

What Parents Can do to Get their Kids to Eat Healthier

  • Watch Out for the “Nag Factor.” Practice the art of saying NO to your kids when they ask for unhealthy foods at the supermarket, in restaurants or at home.
  • Warn Kids About Unhealthy Ads Ahead of Time. Warn your kids in advance that they may be targeted by food companies and others to eat unhealthy foods. This helps to offset the marketing impact. See:
  • Photographs and Images of Healthy Foods Help! Try hanging images of fruits and vegetables in your kitchen. Change them often.
  • Keep Fruits and Veggies Handy. if you have lots of fruits and vegetables visible and ready to eat, you and your family will be more likely to choose them over other, less healthy foods.
  • Veggies First. Always offer your kids vegetables first, when they’re hungriest.
  • When Introducing New Foods to Your Kids, Use the Familiar Along with the New Try to introduce new foods along with a familiar one.
  • Copying Behaviors. Kids mimic the eating behaviors of their parents, teachers, siblings, peers and people they see on TV and in advertisements. If you want them to eat healthier, model healthy eating.
  • Don’t be the Diet Police. Instead of criticizing, try  showing support when family members actually eat healthier foods.
  • Shape Your Food. Make the food look good by presenting it in familiar, fun shapes.
  • Eat Healthy Meals Together. Sitting down at a table (no TV) and eating meals as a family increases the likelihood that your family will eat more fruits and vegetables, and decreases the consumption of unhealthy foods (e.g., soda).

Additional writing and reporting done by Alexina Cather, MPH

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