Skip to main content

The corn dogs of my youth entered my consciousness - and stomach - precisely once a year when the midway came to town. It all ended badly one summer with a turn on The Spider. It didn't matter that I'd been told a hundred times: I learned the hard way that breaded wieners fried in fat were best not consumed before the ride.

Kids often don't listen because, well, they're kids. There's not much you can, or really want to, do about that. It's when the adults need more supervision than the children to whom they market that it's time to get serious about errant behaviour.

This brings us back to corn dogs. In Quebec, the Pogo (to the chagrin of many a mother) is an almost sacred symbol, a 45-year-old local brand that still dominates supermarket freezer shelves. While the brand has some leverage outside the province, Pogo sales are still disproportionately a Quebec story. And Pogo maker ConAgra Foods, its seems, will do just about anything to protect its turf.

That has become a bit harder to do since January, when Pogos - like the rest of their empty-calorie cohorts - were banned from school cafeterias in Quebec. A Pogo is a hot dog rolled in corn flour batter that's fried, frozen and typically refried or microwaved. Each one contains 190 calories, with 43 per cent of that coming from fat.

That makes Pogos an increasingly tough product to tout.

No matter. Pogo posters began showing up on or near school properties in Montreal recently, part of a marketing campaign ConAgra says is aimed at adolescent boys. The ad slogans are of the variety that, in times gone by, would have made the good nuns who taught school get out their soap and wash the mouths of anyone who dared utter them.

Pogo, in the campaigns, becomes " boutte" or, in this context, Quebec slang for a male sexual organ. There's no ambiguity about the meaning of slogans such as "Grab your boutte" or "I have a big boutte, you have a little boutte."

The posters invited kids to tear off pages of stickers with the said slogans, that they could subsequently plaster around their neighbourhood, and visit a website named, oh surprise!, tienstonboutte.com.

ConAgra insists it never intended for the posters to show up on or near school grounds, especially since it is illegal in Quebec to direct advertising at children under 13. It proceeded late last week to take down all posters, even those in skateboard parks and near basketball courts.

That was only after a couple of days of heightened media exposure put Pogos on the front page of the daily papers and near the top of the nightly news. If visibility is the objective of any marketing campaign, ConAgra hit the bull's eye.

Marketing expert Yves Dupré told Radio-Canada: "It's clear a lot of things in this campaign are illegal. But at the same time, it enables the company to gain publicity that it probably couldn't afford otherwise."

We have no choice but to take ConAgra at its word when it says the posters placed near as many as four schools were put there in error. But it's a bit harder to swallow its suggestion that the campaign, which continues on the Internet and on an event-related basis, is targeted only at kids 13 and up.

The ads aren't invisible to 10- or 12-year-olds, after all. And boys that age are just as wise as 13-year-olds when it comes to the sexual innuendo contained in the ads.

"It's an irreverent, humorous campaign that's relevant for the target," Andrew Armstrong, ConAgra Canada's vice-president of marketing, explained in an interview. "The whole idea is making fun of being a man. We, well, not capitalized, but tried to tie that in to the relevance of our product. It's like: Being proud of your Pogo and being proud of yourself."

We expect corporations, in a capitalist society, to push their products in every way legally possible. It's just when, like ConAgra, they start talking about their vaunted records of social responsibility that we start to feel like we did, way back when, on The Spider.

"ConAgra Foods has a special responsibility to schoolchildren to provide healthy options and accurate nutritional information," the website of ConAgra Canada's U.S.-based parent points out in its section on corporate responsibility. "We are committed to responsible and truthful advertising and hold ourselves and our agencies to the highest standards."

If only we could believe them. Instead, we are left to conclude that they, like so many of their peers, need more supervision. Like children.