It’s the vegetable ad campaign that never was.

And yet it’s highly successful, in terms of starting online discussions, with bloggers and consumers passionately describing their love of this particular vegetable and posting recipes as well. Any commodity board would be jealous of the free publicity.

I’m talking about the broccoli campaign ( cooked up by The New York Times and ad agency Victor & Spoils, made public in the Times in early November.

Victor & Spoils took on the challenge — how to make broccoli edgy and sexy — for free. The agency did everything from forming focus groups to generating slogans for (photoshopped) signs on billboards, bus stops, on the sides of buildings and grocery carts. It even conjured a fake trade association, the Broccoli Commission of America.

The core message focused on a vegetable that’s riding a wave of popularity with foodies, hipsters and chefs: kale.

Why not take on kale, Victor & Spoils asked.

Here are a few slogans the agency concocted:

u Broccoli: 43% less pretentious than kale;

u Since when do superfoods have to be super trendy?;

u What came first, kale or the bandwagon?; and

u Eat fad free: broccoli vs. kale.

This reminds me of the baby carrot slogan by Bolthouse Farms — Eat ’em like junk food — unveiled a few years ago with the audacious goal of a $25 million multi-year campaign that invited other companies to chip in and market baby carrots by using junk food ads/marketing tactics.

Jeffrey Dunn, a former president of Coca-Cola and now president and chief executive officer of Bolthouse, was present at the Victor & Spoils presentation on the ad campaign.

More recently, he joined Produce Marketing Association president Bryan Silbermann on stage during PMA’s Fresh Summit in New Orleans.

Dunn’s message, backed by Silbermann: pushing the health message alone will not boost consumption. A radical change, employing mainstream marketing messages, is needed. Humor always worked for me. How many ads get stuck in your head because they’re funny or silly?

In the early November Times article, Silbermann mentions a major opportunity for the industry (since then announced as the two-year “Sesame Street” agreement that allows produce shippers to use the Muppet characters to promote consumption).

Will this be the Holy Grail that PMA is predicting it to be? I have no doubt some companies will see sales pick up, but TV and movie characters have been used on everything from fresh-cut apples to onions (even broccoli has the Cruciferous Crusaders) and consumption of most fruits and vegetables has barely registered any increase.

As for first lady Michelle Obama’s assessment of the “Sesame Street” agreement — as the force behind the Let’s Move program, she was quoted in the news release — that children, upon seeing Elmo, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, etc., will choose healthful produce over junk food, I’m skeptical.

If children respond to those stimuli alone, won’t they react in kind to hundreds of unhealthy food items throughout the store that employ the same marketing techniques? When it comes to using licensed characters to get a child’s attention, junk food wrote the book.

Back to the broccoli campaign. What’s not to like? It’s a ready-made campaign for broccoli growers to back.

The catch: According to Victor & Spoils, the advertising campaign would cost $3 million to $7 million. High numbers for a relatively small crop, when production is stacked up against potatoes, pears and avocados, all which have established marketing orders funded by growers.

The price tag, if paid for by growers based on the most recent season, would be 0.42 cents a pound on the low end and almost a penny per pound for the $7 million.

That’s not prohibitive in itself, but at this time, there’s no method to collect and manage the money without a U.S. Department of Agriculture marketing order. That entails a grower referendum, hiring a staff, electing board members and more record-keeping for growers/shippers.

Besides, kids don’t care about kale versus broccoli, and they’re a more important market when it comes to long-term change in diets to tackle the obesity problem in the U.S.

True, parents decide what to buy and serve to the family, but children, with the help of schools, are becoming a critical factor against obesity.

It’s not just about salad bars and fruit and vegetable snacks at schools. They’re great. But private industry and federal programs need to consider pre-schools as another important part of the solution.

Children soak up information that will form their decisions later in life. What’s needed is an immersion-type program that uses health as the unifying message.

Silbermann is correct: This is a critical time for the industry, and there are opportunities out there. It’s time to step up and invent the next “kale.”