By Olga Khazan
Twenty-five years ago, talk-show host Gordon Elliott was working as a reporter for a local morning TV show called Good Day New York. The gig involved knocking on the doors of random, unsuspecting New Yorkers and, along with a chef, treating the person to a freshly cooked breakfast while film crews captured it all. One morning in 1992 when a New York Times reporter tagged along, the lucky woman was Nancy Bayer, a grandma who lived in the Bronx.
Part of Elliott’s entourage that day was a man in a full-body avocado costume who drove an avocado-colored Mazda and carried an avocado-filled basket.
“‘Hello, I’m Mr. Ripe Guy,’ came a muffled voice from the avocado costume,” the paper wrote. The chef cooked Bayer a “California avocado” omelet; a beautician gave her an avocado mask. (“Fabulous for softening.”)
The explanation for the presence of Mr. Guy, as the Times might say, was that June is “California Avocado Month.”
In reality, it was all part of an aggressive, years-long crusade by a team at the PR firm Hill & Knowlton, whose sole mission was to put avocados on the map among everyday Americans.
By all accounts, the effort was a sweeping success. This Sunday, Americans will eat nearly 80 million pounds of avocados, largely in the form of guacamole. Avocados are now a staple—or should I say glue, as in a delicious chartreuse paste—of the rest of our diets, too. A quick search through my inbox, an unscientific yet undoubtedly large sample, reveals pitches for “15 unbelievable avocado toasts,” “the freshest avocado oil in the USA” and “Primal Kitchen Avocado Mayo!” among other delights.
The avocado has recently claimed the top spot in America’s fruit baskets. (Yep. It’s a fruit—a fleshy, seed-associated structure.) In the 1990s, the average American ate about 1.5 pounds; in 2012, he ate 5 pounds. In the same time-frame, by comparison, per capita consumption of fresh apples has actuallydeclined by half a pound.
Avocados have always been somewhat popular in California, but their uptake was slower in other parts of the country. A few forces have helped them along: In the late 90s, the U.S. government lifted a banon avocado imports from Mexico, the world’s largest producer, and now the fruit is available year-round. Many experts believe the rapid growth of the U.S. Latino population has also been a factor.
But although people of Latino descent may buy avocados more often, everyone else is increasingly snapping them up, too. In 2007, the Hass Avocado Board found that 97 percent of Hispanic shoppers bought avocados, but so did 49 percent of the general population. Even in 2003, one study described the “typical U.S. avocado purchaser” as being between 25 to 54 years of age, having an income of at least $50,000, and being an “upscale,” college-educated, and health-conscious woman.
The story of how avocados went from being an obscure West-Coast cash crop to the juggernaut of the Midwestern produce section is one of extreme feats of marketing and major shifts in ideas about nutrition. It is a story of a desperate renaming, a PR Hail-Mary, and of the changing nature of the Super Bowl. It is a tale best enjoyed with a squeeze of lime and generous sprinkling of cilantro.
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The avocados of the early 20th century were still called “alligator pears” for their bumpy, olive skin. The moniker, suffice it to say, was not appetizing. The association with the swamp-dwelling, man-eating reptile was “ruining the avocado business,” the California Avocado Growers’ Exchange complained at the time. The group began pushing to replace the name with the more-exotic and less-menacing “avocado,” a word that was adapted centuries ago from the Aztec “ahuacacuahatl,” or “testicle tree.” (I suppose “testicle fruit” did not make the short list for the rebranding effort, either.)
“That the avocado, an exalted member of the laurel family, should be called an alligator pear is beyond all understanding,” the trade group moaned in a 1927 statement.
The growers eventually got their way—in coming decades the emerald ellipsoids were termed avocados or “avocado pears” or sometimes “butter pears”—but they then faced another problem: How to get people to eat a fruit that wasn’t sweet, didn’t cook well, had a slippery texture, and ripened off the tree.
“The growers in Southern California were wealthy and white, and even though they strenuously marketed their crop, their efforts were limited, because they could not imagine (nor could the American food consumer) the ‘Mexicanized’ tastes of society as it is today, where avocado routinely appears in tortillas, on sandwiches, in green salads, and even on toast,” Jeffrey Charles, a professor of food history at California State University at San Marcos, told me in an email.
And because avocados could be grown only in the mildest parts of the U.S., they were too expensive to be an everyday food. In 1974, Time reported that the orchards of Southern California were seeing a rash of avocado thefts thanks to the fruit’s “irresistible” selling price of $1 a pop. (That’s $4.80 in today’s dollars.)
So marketers began to hawk avocados as a luxury item, to be used in “elegant” and “upscale” salads. In the late 20s, the California Avocado Society billed Calavos, as they called them, the “aristocrat of salad fruits” in ads in The New Yorker and Vogue. Recipes recommended pairing avocados with grapefruit or lobster.
“I vividly remember my mom serving [avocado] in the 1960s when she wanted to be fancy and impress our guests,” Charles said.
Starting in the 1980s, nutrition experts began urging Americans to cut their fat intake, the reasoning being that some of that fat was saturated and thus unhealthy. Low-fat foods, such as SnackWell cookies, became favorites among the weight-conscious, even though they had a similar number of calories as higher-fat versions.
“The idea was to reduce saturated fat [only], but the assumption was that it was too complicated to explain all that, and that if people just reduced … the fat content of their diet, they would be improving it,” nutrition expert Marion Nestle told PBS.
A low-fat diet, of course, would preclude munching on avocados, which are crammed with monounsaturated fat—the “good” kind of fat that may help reduce cholesterol. (Today, the newest research suggests that even saturated fats may have been unfairly maligned.)
“I can remember seeing a fact-sheet that came from a doctor my husband went to years ago,” said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing with the California Avocado Commission. “It was a heart-health type message. It said, ‘Do not consume avocados.’”
The avocado growers began battling the anti-fat movement. The California Avocado Commission formed a Nutrition Advisory Committee in the late 1980s, bringing together nutrition experts from around the country to find and tout research that might help promote the healthful qualities of avocados. They funded studies, for example, which showed that the fat in avocados helps them act as “nutrient boosters,” enhancing the absorption of lycopene in other vegetables. DeLyser said the Commission joined forces with Harvard University and the Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust in promoting the Mediterranean diet, in which people eat more fats and fewer refined carbohydrates.
The “good-for-you” message was driven home with TV ads starring the actress Angie Dickinson eating an avocado half with a spoon while wearing gold stilettos and a white leotard. “Would this body lie to you?” she asks the viewer softly.
The nutrition tide eventually turned, but many customers were still puzzled by avocados. Take their color, for example: People were trying to eat avocados when they were at their most beautiful (and unripe) green, rather than wait until they reached their peak ripeness at a nice murky brown.
The Commission began visiting supermarkets to try to convince produce-section managers that unlike other fruits, avocados are even better once they darken. “They would be able to sell ripe avocados and be able to make some money and not have shrink,” DeLyser said, using the retailer term for wasted product.
It also enlisted the help of Hill & Knowlton, which introduced Mr. Ripe Guy. The mascot, sometimes simply a Hill & Knowlton associate, would appear at various events as an avocado cheerleader of sorts.
In 1995, the Commission announced that Mr. Ripe Guy was feeling lonely; they would commence a nationwide search for “Ms. Ripe.” Contestants, human women who “exemplified the California lifestyle of good health and healthy eating,” were told to send in videocassettes of themselves explaining why they deserved the top honor. The winner received a trip to Hollywood and a walk-on role on the TV show Baywatch Nights.
A press release from May of that year read:
”I’m green with excitement! I feel like a baby avocado before his first date,” said a bashful and blushing Mr. Ripe Guy, whose forefathers were considered by the ancient Aztecs to be aphrodisiacs. ”Thanks to the expertise of the celebrity judges, I’m hopeful and confident the panel will pick the right mate for me.”
Ultimately, it was 26-year-old Robyn Nardone of Chicago who bested five other contestants. “Getting to be Ms. Ripe is like a dream come true,” Nardone said at the time. “I will bear the title proudly.”
The final barrier was customers’ lack of familiarity with the fruit, according to Bonnie Goodman, a former senior vice president at Hill & Knowlton who handled the avocado account in the late 80s and early 90s. “Nationally, avocados were not that well-known or recognized,” said Goodman, who nowruns her own communications firm. “How do we raise awareness and get people to understand what it is this?”
Meanwhile, the nature of the Super Bowl changed, too. Americans did with the big game what we’ve done with seemingly every national event: Turn it from a day centered on a specific purpose to a day of consuming thousands more calories than our stomachs will comfortably fit. Super Bowl Sunday became less about football fanaticism and more about chips and seven-layer dip. In recent years, Americans have consumed 1.23 billion chicken wings on Super Bowl Sunday and eaten 15 million pizzas.
The avocado growers wanted in on the snackapalooza. January was a month in which many growers’ crops would ripen, Goodman said, and what better way to push all that fruit through the market than a national day of guacamole-eating?
“We didn’t say, ‘We should eat guacamole during the Super Bowl,’” Goodman says. Many people were already doing that. But “we took advantage of a huge opportunity to play it out.”
Goodman and her team concocted the idea of a “Guacamole Bowl” by soliciting recipes from NFL players and their families. A 1992 Philadelphia Eagles version, for example, recommended four ripe avocados, lemon juice, garlic, tomato, onion, cumin, pepper sauce, and “Pasadena red rose petals for garnish (optional).”
The public would vote on a winner; the winner stirred up fan intrigue. Would the Guacamole Bowl champion be the victor of the Super Bowl itself? It didn’t matter … but then again neither do most predictions.
The PR people set up camp in stadium press boxes and doled out guac samples to sports reporters. They peppered newspaper editors with factoids—X pounds of gauc to cover a football field; Y millions of avocados consumed on game day—that are still popular today.
“No other single American event impacts the sale of avocados like the Super Bowl,” former Commission president Mark Affleck said in press releases throughout the early 90s. “In fact, Super Bowl week trails only Cinco de Mayo as the most important week of the year for California avocados.”
The guac stats were widely picked up. Affleck’s LinkedIn profile boasts “millions of positive hits” from that time period. (He did not return a request for comment.)
“We took the message out of the traditional food page of the newspaper and we took it into other areas, like sports, which expanded the impact,” Goodman says.
Goodman liked all the fun the PR team was having, but she was even more pleased with the skyrocketing sales figures: Despite the rise of foreign imports, the value of the California avocado crop spiked by nearly 70 percent between 1988 and 2000, the Commission told me.
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The effort behind the avocado is an example of viral marketing before there was virality. (Goodman said at one point when her team was weighing creating a website for avocados, several people admitted they didn’t know what a website was.)
It’s not clear whether the avocado would have blown up without all of these machinations, but other obscure fruits have not managed to pull off a similar rise.
“We used to try to get some promotion around Groundhog Day because kiwis and groundhogs are both fuzzy,” Scott Horsfall, chief executive of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, told the APrecently. “But we never got much attention there.”
Food marketing is rarely purely good or purely evil, but it is often surprisingly powerful. The saga of the avocado shows how food promotion can—when it coincides happily with changing demographics, fortuitous economic policy, and favorable scientific knowledge—work almost eerily well. It can change the way we eat, sometimes forever.
“If you can make people think it is the proper thing to have an Calavo cocktail or salad, it is a mightily important influence,” an early-1900s ad man named Don Francisco once told an anxious California Avocado Society. “For instance, it got around that broccoli was a smart thing to serve in all menus. It suddenly appeared on the menus of fashionable restaurants. Few people knew just what it was or where it came from, but thousands of people began wanting broccoli because it was the new and proper thing to serve.”