Health officials in Multnomah County aim to reach consumers as they munch popcorn and slurp sodas, watching summer movies. Their ad got "thumbs down" from Regal Entertainment.
Sonia Manhas was really excited last year when Multnomah County landed a $7.5 million grant for anti-obesity education from the Centers for Disease Control. Despite Metro Portland's reputation as an active, outdoorsy kind of place, Multnomah County's adult obesity rate is more than 50%.
Manhas manages the community wellness and prevention program for the county.
"We are at Lloyd Center in Northeast Portland up in the food court area."
Manhas is someone who likes to go where temptation strikes, particularly for young people. She knows the soft drink and fast food industries consider malls and movie theaters prime real estate for advertising.
As an elevator pings, and the door slides shut, Manhas gestures to the ad plastered across the elevator door. It's the ad the county developed as the face of an anti-obesity public education campaign:
Manhas explains, "What we've got here is a soda bottle, sixteen packs of sugar, above it showing how much sugar's in the drink, and kind of exploding out of the bottle is a pretty graphic image of fat."
The billboard says, "You just ate sixteen packs of sugar", and warns that too many calories bring on a host of health problems.
This image zooms by on the sides of buses and looms over drivers on billboards. Manhas wanted to get the image in front of thousands of moviegoers this summer.
"This is us actually having some resources to make legitimate media buys," Manhas says. "We weren't asking for a public service rate or anything like that."
Her staff contacted National Cinemedia— or NCM. That's a premier cinema advertising buyer that works with the big three chains – AMC Theaters, Cinemark, and Regal.
"The conversation started out fine," Manhas recalls. "We started walking down the path of purchasing the ad space. When NCM showed the ads to Regal, I guess it quickly made its way up the chain. By the time it hit leadership in Regal and they saw it, that's when we heard they were not going to accept the ad and we were not going to be able to buy space for that particular ad."
Regal Cinemas did not return repeated requests for comment. A spokeswoman for NCM sent a short written response. The way she tells the story, the ad was not rejected by Regal Entertainment Group.
NCM's Amy Jane Finnerty writes that her company decides which ads run. She says the Multnomah County's public service ad did not meet its advertising content guidelines.
Finnerty didn't specify what those guidelines are, and declined to say more.
Theater chains have had a complicated relationship with the public health sector for the past few years. Anyone interested in reaching young people knows theaters are prime territory.
Federal and local officials have fought to make nutrition information more accessible to consumers in chain restaurants. But theaters have argued they shouldn't be subject to the same requirements faced by McDonalds and Taco Bell.
Mel Rader with Upstream Public Health used to work with Multnomah County, back when the health department was pioneering a local menu labeling law that would have forced chain restaurants to divulge nutrition info. Later, he lobbied the Oregon legislature for a similar law. He say public health officials have been thinking about theatergoers as a possible target market.
"There was a lot of talk about that," Rader says. "We see there's very high calorie counts at many items eaten at the movies, huge popcorn bins. And people really do have no idea how many calories they're eating."
A 2009 report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest - a consumer advocacy group - says a medium popcorn and soda combo averages as many calories as three Big Macs, and a three-day supply of dietary fat.
Of course, many moviegoers are aware that movie snacks aren't good for you. Carina Arechiga visited a Regal Theater in downtown Portland this week to check out the new Transformers blockbuster. She says she loves concession stand food.
"Oh man, popcorn, the nachos. They got really good nachos. And the sour strip candies? That's the only reason I come to the movies. It's all I get."
She knows these things have a lot of calories and fat. She brought a sandwich this time, trying to beat temptation. But would she buy healthier stuff at the theater concession stand?
"Honestly? No, I wouldn't go for it. Because the movies, it's all about the popcorn."
Kurt Sussman and his 12-year old daughter were at the theater to see Harry Potter yesterday (Wednesday). Sussman agrees that people come to movies at least in part for salty, greasy snacks. But, he says, that doesn't mean theaters are totally off the hook.
"I'd like to see more rational portions, though, instead of the monster box of candy, offer a size that fits the activity better. You're sitting there doing nothing, right? How many calories do you need?"
To hear one theater lobbyist tell it, customer demand drives what ends up at the concession stand. Bruce Gardiner is director of the Motion Picture Exhibitors of Washington, Alaska, and Oregon.
He explains, "the theaters are most interested in providing what customers want. And so they're always experimenting at different types of food products. One that comes to mind is in a number of theaters, I've seen these self-serve candy carousels or such like that."
Gardiner says he can't speak for Regal or any other single member of his association. But he says theaters will work with the public to accommodate new demands. He points to the big push to eliminate transfats a few years ago. Theater owners went to their oil suppliers, working with them to find a formula for popcorn. But, he adds, most people wanted the old flavor back. So he says some theater companies he works with still use it.
Multnomah County's Sonia Manhas says the county is considering some other options.Manhas isn't ruling out going to some independent theaters with the county's on-screen message. But she says this process has profoundly affected her view of consumer choices.
"I really did feel it was a free market. If you had the resource to buy the ad, we wouldn't be censored for the kind of content you put forward. Certainly we were aware they draw a lot of profit from soda."
The anti-obesity campaign is actually much bigger than just the ads. Among other things, it involves staffing wellness coordinators in schools, planning projects in neighborhoods with no supermarket or recreational space.