For better or worse, the 5 A Day Adventures CD-ROM was originally given away to elementary schools and libraries for free.1 It was meant to encourage kids to eat healthy food, but it’s also, unavoidably, an interactive ad for the Dole Food Company.
I realize that a promotional CD-ROM about fruit is sort of a ridiculous thing to write about. It almost doesn’t matter whether 5 A Day Adventures is any good, because the interesting part has less to do with the food pyramid and everything to do with the bigger colliding forces at work in the worlds of education, software, and public relations that produced this thing.
Looking at the final product, you can tell that the creators of 5 A Day Adventures tried their best to make health education sound like fun. It’s right there in the title: this informational CD-ROM is supposed to be an adventure. When you fire up the game, you’re greeted by Bobby Banana, a totally radical skateboarding banana, who served as an on-and-off mascot for Dole.2 He’s your tour guide through the world of nutrition. First he takes you to Banana Boulevard, a small-town street where the fruits and vegetables hang out. Then it’s off to the Land of 5 a Day, a sprawling picnic world that teaches kids about serving sizes and food labels. Bobby Banana works at the local radio station here, blasting tunes about veggies and vitamins for all the food-people.
There’s something alarming about the fact that there’s only a single human who lives on Banana Boulevard and there’s a cafe in town where the vegetables cook and eat other vegetables, but I assume we’re not supposed to read too much into this.
There’s a dozen activities to do around town, each with a goofy character who teaches you about healthy eating. You can go to the theater to watch Pamela Pineapple put on a show where the fruits and vegetables share facts about themselves – did you know that most cauliflower is grown in California? – or you can make a healthy salad at the Salad Factory. At the end of each section, the game gives you a quiz, and you can earn a certificate that proves you know your stuff about fruits and veggies. The breadth of the material covered by 5 A Day Adventures is surprisingly large, but that’s also why the game feels so awkward.
For context, this CD-ROM was developed as part of a larger public health initiative. Dole was a member for the 5 A Day Better Health Program, a nationwide campaign that partnered up with the food industry to encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables,3 and as more schools were starting to use computers in the 90s, Dole saw there was an opening to be the first to the market with a nutrition education CD-ROM.4 It was as much a piece of educational software as it was a PR move; the marketing push for 5 A Day Adventures was overseen by Ketchum PR, a firm that does advertising work for the food and beverage industry, which booked the CD-ROM a spot on NBC’s Today show.5
Quite a few different parties were invested in 5 A Day Adventures. Based on the credits, most of the content seems to have been designed by Dole’s director of nutrition and health Lorelei DiSogra,6 along with input from the Society for Nutrition Education. Besides communicating the messages of the 5 A Day Program, it also needed to be an ad for Dole, and it also covers new developments in nutrition policy, like the newly redesigned Nutrition Facts label that was mandated in the United States by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1991. In short, the CD-ROM had a glut of content that it needed to feature, and you can feel it bogged down by all those obligations.
5 A Day Adventures seems to be hitting specific bullet points that the stakeholders wanted to include, even if they’re a poor fit for the program. If the goal was to get kids excited about eating fruits and vegetables, it really doesn’t matter that most cauliflower is grown in California, but that must have been on a list of vegetable facts that the developers were told to put in. Even the wacky food characters speak in terms of bullet points. In the dried fruit aisle of supermarket, Calvin Carrot tells you that “There are three messages to discover,” as if Dole was required to include three specific pieces of information about shopping for dried fruit, and Calvin Carrot has been court-ordered to tell you about them.
There’s a disconnect between the fanciful world of fruit that 5 A Day Adventures takes place in and the material that these characters are forced to cover. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Dole’s nutrition team trying to do something good within a promotional product like this, because it does make an effort to get kids interested in healthy food. Some ideas work, and some don’t. It attempts to talk to kids on their level, like when it compares reading a nutritional label to “being a detective,” or when it asks kids about their favorite foods. But then too much of the remainder of the program is like vegetables reading a factsheet in a silly accent.
There are a few sing-a-longs wedged in too, but they’re banal even for a children’s computer game about nutrition. The lyrics to the song about Vitamin A are mostly just telling you that they’re singing a song about Vitamin A. It’s really, really awful, like the composer had five minutes to write a song about Vitamin A.
The game sits in a sticky intersection of education, advertising, and digital publishing. Dole was drawn to the idea of producing a CD-ROM in the first place because educational software was a booming format with a ton of interest from families and teachers. (The internet was rapidly growing too, so Dole also put up a 5 A Day Adventures website that let kids send emails to a Bobby Banana, or at least a Dole employee pretending to be Bobby Banana.4) When the game was released for the general public at a budget price of $14.95, it was not only sold at software retailers but also, surprisingly, at supermarkets, where a parent might already be buying Dole-branded food products.7,8 Making a nutrition CD-ROM was a means to an end – the cooler, buzzier way to do advertising.
This wasn’t an isolated case either. Ketchum PR, the company than ran Dole’s PR for 5 A Day Adventures, was also responsible Building a Better Salad: Good News at the Top!, a free program designed for the Wish-Bone salad dressing brand, which had a similar double-headed goal to teach users about nutrition while also plugging a food brand.5,9 A program like that could have easily just been relegated to an information box on the back of a food package that nobody would read. During the CD-ROM boom – an era with niche CD-ROM encyclopedias and ballooning interest in educational software – it seems that food companies, nutrition groups, and marketing firms all realized you could turn a list of salad tips into a product.
Dole sent around 20,000 copies of 5 A Day Adventures to teachers,4,5 and counting copies of the software that were bundled with Macintosh computers, they eventually distributed 270,000 CD-ROMs.4 It was a surprising success for Dole, enough that five years later, they developed a second edition of the program, with more focus on physical activity.
Isn’t it amazing that Dole distributed a quarter-million copies of a corporate PSA? If it wasn’t a computer game, it would have just been a packet of worksheets given to schools, and it wouldn’t have had nearly the same reach. While the concept of selling software in supermarkets didn’t pan out for the industry,10 CD-ROMs were still an exciting and novel format for something like this in the mid-90s. The sales numbers must have looked great to Dole executives.
5 A Day Adventures works best when it’s trying to have fun with kids. Most of the time though, it seems like the actual audience for this game was the organizations that made it.
1. Singer, Linda A. (1994, March). School of thought. CD-ROM Professional, 7(2), p.146. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/224108354
2. Zbar, Jeffery D. (1997, March 31). Move over raisins, says Dole’s ‘Bobby Banana.’ The Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved from https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1997-03-31-9703280149-story.html
3. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2005). 5 A Day Works!, p.v. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/nutrition/health_professionals/programs/5aday_works.pdf
4. Wheelock, Verner (Ed.). (1997). Implementing Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Eating. Blackie Academic & Professional, p.462-495. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/books/edition/Implementing_Dietary_Guidelines_for_Heal/ftC9suGxewsC
5. Ketchum adds high-tech touch to food drives. (1994, March). O’Dwyer’s PR Services Report. Retrieved from LexisNexis
6. Riemenschneider, Pamela. (2017, June 23). The legacy of Lorelei DiSogra. Produce Retailer. Retrieved from https://www.produceretailer.com/article/blog-article/legacy-lorelei-disogra
7. Future Vision Multimedia forms strategic alliance with Dole Food Co. (1995, April 18). Business Wire. Retrieved from LexisNexis
8. SoftKey Int’l and Dole Food team up. (1995, September 11). Multimedia Week, 4(36). Retrieved from Factiva
9. Morandi, Kari. (1993, August 3). Wish-Bone lets computer buffs analyze their salads’ nutrients. Deseret News. Retrieved from https://www.deseret.com/1993/8/3/19059278/wish-bone-lets-computer-buffs-analyze-their-salads-nutrients
10. Alaimo, Dan. (1996, July 8). CD-ROM Growth Lies Ahead for Supermarkets. Supermarket News, 46(28), p.39. Retrieved from LexisNexis