University of Pittsburgh marketing class spreads word on hunger

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Students are often told they must be hungry to succeed, but University of Pittsburgh professor Bob Gilbert had a different hunger in mind when he chose the client for his current Projects in Marketing class.

"He came to us and said they wanted to adopt us for the entire semester," said Iris Valanti, director of communications for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

After more than two months of preparation, the students have taken their publicity campaign, "One Meal at a Time," to the streets, a full-scale blitz of consciousness-raising that Mr. Gilbert, clinical associate professor of marketing, said is going to hit campus buildings in waves over a few weeks.

Each semester, Mr. Gilbert's projects class morphs into a marketing firm and takes a client. The last one was Chevrolet. This class dubbed itself ProsInMotion and took on one of the region's biggest charities. The food bank had worked with a previous class, but this campaign has broader intent -- to imprint the face of hunger on the conscience of Generation Y.

"They are very different to market to" than their elders, Mr. Gilbert said. "They consume media differently, they are not particularly brand loyal. They are skeptical about traditional media and don't want things jammed down their throats.

"Who's better able to market to Gen Y than Gen Y students with marketing training?"

But his own students began the semester with a learning curve.

"We asked them to list the most important social issues, and they said gay marriage and gun control," he said. "Many consider people who need food assistance are undeserving because of bad choices."

In a survey the class took of 500 people around campus, half the respondents said the hungry are to blame for their need. During the semester, the students talked to food bank staff and volunteers and visited the warehouse in Duquesne, from which almost 3 million pounds of food are distributed each month in 11 counties.

Andrew Garson, head of the class's traditional advertising department, said the experience "shattered" his previous perceptions. "We're excited to shatter other people's perceptions."

He oversaw the design and production of posters that include images and messages about the elderly, veterans, people who are laid off from work and children.

"If you live on campus, chances are you have a meal plan," reads one poster. "Consider yourself lucky." Another reads: "We all know how difficult it is to study with an empty stomach. What if you couldn't do anything about it?"

Under the photo of a little boy, one poster reads, "I'm hungry. And its not my fault."

The posters are part of an ad campaign that includes social media, a video, a flash mob, and a field day scheduled for April 3 with games, raffles and food on the Schenley Quad.

Kevin Ray is leading the nontraditional advertising effort. He said the flash mob toward the end of the campaign will feature a "hunger-fighting superhero, Meal Man. We plan on having him act as a sort of mascot for the campaign."

The point will be "to get people's attention" with a flash mob confrontation between Meal Man and his nemesis, he wrote in an email. "Students walking to and from class would never expect to see a group of people dramatically fighting to help solve hunger."

"It is true: A lot of people in the hunger movement are older, and we need to bring in younger generations," Ms. Valanti said. "In this economy, hunger has affected way more people than usual. We have people in more affluent neighborhoods up to their eyeballs in a big mortgage. I'm not going to say that people who are hungry haven't made mistakes, but everybody needs to eat.

"It's not like we aren't careful, but people are hungry for different reasons, and it's my job to provide food."

Amy Peduto heads the class's campaign department. Her academic peers, she said, "don't hang with hungry people, and even if we did, we wouldn't know it. It's not like a bruise on your arm that says you're abused."

"That's part of our message," Mr. Gilbert said, "that hunger is a silent problem."

"I was shocked to learn the food bank helps more than 120,000 people every month, many of whom I would never have guessed needed it," said Julia Millman, who, as head of the class's public relations department, distributed the campaign's news release. "We are determined to make the issue of hunger resonate with Generation Y on the Pitt campus and beyond."

With the food bank's direction and approval, the students' campaign began last week with a food drive.

"We all have a newly developed passion from working with this organization," Mr. Gilbert told his class Tuesday before they dispersed to hang thousands of plastic bags with a flier explaining the campaign on doorknobs. "If you have not shared this campaign with every one of your friends [on social media], why not? And if not, I will hunt you down. Guys, this is the fun part of the campaign."

On Thursday, the students collected the bags from doorknobs

"I think some people think there's not a lot they can do to help. They're overwhelmed; they don't have a lot of money," Ms. Valanti said. "But it doesn't take much to make a difference."

Online, the campaign urges students to "be on the lookout for exciting things to come around campus and all around the Pittsburgh area. To get involved with the campaign or the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, contact and visit the website,

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Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at


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