It's all part of a multimillion-dollar advertising program for Fox's first foray into animated feature films. Kids who go to participating schools in 300 districts nationwide get colorful cafeteria menus, complete with Anastasia games and puzzles, that let them choose such delectable items as Pooka Pineapple Bits or Rasputin Rib-B-Cue on a Bartok Bun for breakfast and lunch.
Anastasia is just the latest entertainment industry ad campaign for the San Juan Capistrano, California-based School Marketing Partners, which creates marketing material for school-district meal programs around the country.
According to company cofounder Frank Kohler, SMP gets paid by advertisers such as Fox to base school-food marketing strategies around their products. Working in cooperation with the individual school districts each month, SMP creates more than 4 million menus with a specific advertiser theme. (Last month's was Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, for a campaign sponsored by Buena Vista syndicated television.)
For Fox officials, it's an effective way to reach their young audience--especially when you consider these menus are designed to be taken home and gone over with parents to plan meal strategy. ("Mommy, screw the "Li'l Czar Head Meatballs, let's go catch a matinee!")
School-lunch coordinators, whose districts get these menus free of charge, don't feel the least bit exploited. "It's a service to us...a great means of marketing our meals," says Phyllis Griffith, food-service director for Columbus, Ohio, public schools. She claims the eye-friendly branding makes kids more interested in looking at the menus and actually planning their breakfast and lunch.
But watchdog groups such as the Oakland-based Center for Commercial-free Education see Fox's campaign as another commercial intrusion into an environment that should remain ad-less.
"Many of these kids are too young to know the difference between what is advertising and what is not," says organization spokeswoman Tamara Schwarz. "Our concern is that when kids see ads in school, they assume their teachers are endorsing the products."
Kohler contends that's not giving the post-Pocahontas generation enough credit. "Today's kids have an enormous amount of purchasing power," he says. "When they come to lunch, they don't want to eat non-branded food."
Besides, he adds, if you visit any grade school these days and look around at the ubiquitous Nike swooshes and Power Ranger lunchboxes, there's plenty of advertising going on already. Now pass the Dimitri Peanutbutter Fudge and be quiet.