Some years ago the fast food chain Checker’s built a television ad campaign around the phrase “Ya gotta eat.” Whether it drove increased traffic and revenue or scored well on audience recall is anybody’s guess. But the one thing you can say for this campaign is that, at a very foundational level, it rang true with 100% of the general public. It’s so true. We all have to eat.
But beyond that most primal of needs (eating), issues such as what we eat, how we eat and when we eat are up for grabs. While many cultures have historically enacted powerful norms regulating these concerns, consumers in the US have demonstrated little regard for such control. With a very few limited exceptions, our food ways reflect mostly our personal and family desires. In the contemporary epoch, this sort of base self-interest has led to the most bizarre of circumstances. When invited to a dinner party, many now believe it is perfectly appropriate to inform the host of their personal food preferences or food politics (“By the way, my wife really doesn’t care much for lamb” or “Just so you know, I’m a practicing vegan”) and, more recently, their food sensitivities or allergies (“I’ve been trying to avoid refined sugars”). If you received a dinner invitation in many other countries or cultures, you’d simply keep your mouth shut and eat what was presented. That’s just the way culture works. But things are very different in the land of infinite choice and hedonistic self-interest.
Of course, in the past 20 or 30 odd years another layer has been added to this equation in the form of a moral imperative regarding notions of what and how we should eat. This moral imperative arose from our collective interest in health and wellness, as well as the belief that what we eat may, in some vague way, affect our overall health and/or well-being. Suddenly we became aware that some foods are thought to be healthier than others, some ways of eating more virtuous than others.
But it is critical to recognize here that this imperative is more moral than cultural. For at the end of the day, after negotiating all of the competing—and often contradictory—health claims and messages, we still decide how we are going to feed ourselves and our families. For example, despite the common—though increasingly debunked—belief that foods high in saturated fat raise cholesterol levels and may cause heart disease, we still eat our potato chips. We may justify this action with rationalizations that pay homage to ideas like “balance,” but we still eat them, moral imperatives be damned. To be more specific, we often find that indulgent occasions are themselves critically important to wellness regimes in the form of emotional balance.
The observations above may explain why we at The Hartman Group have always been puzzled by the numerous—and at times bizarre—attempts to communicate alleged healthfulness of a given food or food product through systematic, rational schemas and symbols designed as a sort of “lowest common denominator” shorthand for naïve, health-minded consumers.
We’ve argued before that the FDA’s peculiar obsession with crafting ever more complex food pyramids to address the national concern with obesity would likely lead to the opposite of the intended result. By encouraging consumers to eat more scientifically—according to arcane, arbitrary guidelines crafted by unknown entities—folks will eventually lose interest and return to their self-interested eating patterns2.
A similar pattern happened in the case of smoking. For more than 30 years the government tried every method imaginable to convince people to stop smoking. Warning labels, frightening symbols, PSAs, commercials, banning advertising on television, and so forth. But it was only recently, when our culture decided we would no longer tolerate smoking indoors and look upon smokers as social pariahs, that smoking rates have plummeted.
And while we are on the subject of visual and symbolic communication of health attributes, we were not at all surprised by the controversy surrounding the Smart Choices program. To be certain, the program arose from the best of intentions. We believe that manufacturers truly do want to help consumers make nutritionally sound choices. The problem is that the program demonstrated little understanding of the consumer’s own approaches to healthful eating.
In the end, there is no escaping the abject paternalism implied by the “We just need to help them approach.” Talk to them like adolescents and, not surprisingly, they’ll react to you like an adult who just doesn’t get it. This is also why adults look so foolish when they try to avail themselves of current youthful trends.
Fact #1: The vast, vast majority of consumers believe that ingredients and food products in boxes, cans and plastic bags are not as healthy as freshly prepared foods.
Fact #2: The consumer has little to no interest in the manufacturer’s or retailer’s moral ideology with regard to what is or is not healthy food.
Of course, Fact #1 above may not be scientifically correct, but that doesn’t matter because we are dealing with consumer perceptions. You may have science on your side, but consumers aren’t particularly interested in your science—or, for that matter, your moral ideology regarding what is and isn’t healthy food.
The good news for those in the food business is that even though most consumers hold these perceptions, they are more than willing to ignore them on many, if not most, occasions. The simple fact remains that most consumers rarely choose to cook from scratch with only fresh ingredients. Usually there is always a need for a packaged food product, either as an ingredient or a staple to a meal.
Similarly, despite the best of intentions on behalf of manufactures, retailers or health policy advocates, we self-interested American consumers have little patience for your high-minded morals regarding healthfulness. This is because we have our own agendas regarding what is—and is not—healthy to eat, agendas that we also ignore with glee on a variety of occasions!
So when food manufacturers or retailers seek to communicate fine gradations in alleged healthfulness of ingredients or food products (green, yellow or red lights; checkmark, etc.) we mostly just ignore them. We do so not because we do not like them. Rather, these efforts simply aren’t relevant to us. It is true that consumers will demonstrate interest in these efforts in surveys and focus groups. But this is largely because to do otherwise would seem foolish, and there is no cost to supporting this moral imperative in such contexts. The one bright spot here is that the brand team’s decision to move forward with such symbolic communications strategies will likely have little negative impact on sales, largely because they will be ignored.
We have consistently argued that consumers have no interest in seeing calorie counts listed on menu boards at QSR restaurants. Moreover, we have even testified to this fact. And yet, many cities and municipalities continue to pursue this agenda with great zeal and enthusiasm. While the data are still inconclusive, early results from New York’s decision to list calorie counts are anything but positive. A recent report found that about 50% of the customers reported noticing the calorie counts. Of that 50%, about 28% suggested that the information had any effect on ordering choices. So now we are down to about 14 out of 100 who noticed and reported changing their behavior. But the punch line is that when receipts were compared with self-reports, researchers found that the “calorie aware” subjects actually ordered slightly more calories than their non-menu listed counterparts3.
But the real story here is not that calorie counts on menus may sometimes cause folks to consume more calories. Rather, as we have suggested repeatedly above, this information is simply not relevant to consumers because they have their own set of moral criteria by which they evaluate their food decisions across particular occasions. The same New York Times story that reported on the calorie count research above captured the true consumer perspective:
Tameika Coates, 28, who works in the gift shop at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, ordered a Big Mac, 540 calories, with a large fries, 500 calories, and a large Sprite, 310 calories. 'I don’t really care too much,' Ms. Coates said. 'I know I shouldn’t, ’cause I’m too big already,' she added with a laugh.
Our critics will respond in two common refrains. Some will argue that consumers need help making sound nutritional choices and the manufacturer or retailer who offers that help will be thusly rewarded. Our answer here is not to debate whether or not consumers need help, but to suggest that they have their own moral criteria—their own definition of healthful eating—and any attempt to reach out in this direction runs the risk of appearing at best, irrelevant, at worst, paternalistic.
Another frequent view suggests that by creating informed consumers, they will make “better choices.” As we’ve witnessed in many other realms of society (casinos, sports coaching, equities markets, etc.), you can give them all of the information in the world and they are still going to make their choice4. Right or wrong as it may be, the decision is theirs.
Barbara Kingsolver once wryly observed that the notion of the “terrible twos” is a uniquely American construction, a process by where we literally force our children at a very early age to sort out the notion of the “self” from the “other.” So she soon realizes that her 2-year-old daughter’s act of self defiance—knocking over a glass of juice—is at once a symbol of defiance, individuality and free-will. And from this point forward, any other attempts to direct or modify her daughter’s newfound “self”—replete with self-interested behavior—will require constant and continuous negotiation.
Of course, while Kingsolver is writing of the complex power dynamics within a family structure, we see little evidence of such power dynamics within the self-interested, consumer-driven marketplace. Unlike Kingsolver’s daughter, consumers need not answer to any higher authority, namely because it doesn’t exist.
And for those who disagree, feel free to keep treating your adult customers like little children. Build websites purporting to teach them how to eat and keep putting cute little stickers and symbols all over your products—just like grade school teachers have for years. A few will be curious, most will probably ignore you, and a few others will be insulted and turn away.
Rest assured, though, what you won’t be doing is communicating with them.
The footnotes for above:
1Though the New York Times offered more credulous and substantiated proof with a summary of a series of trials in a 2006 JAMA article (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/08/health/08fat.html), Gary Taubes has been successfully debunking the link between saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease for the better part of two decades (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/07/magazine/what-if-it-s-all-been-a-big-fat-lie.html?pagewanted=1). But just to be explicitly clear, the NY Times article begins with this quote:” The largest study ever to ask whether a low-fat diet reduces the risk of getting cancer or heart disease has found that the diet has no effect.” Case closed.
2Just to give the reader a sense of the inanity, today’s “tip of the day” broadcast via twitter from MyPyramid.gov is “For dessert, make chocolate or butterscotch pudding with fat-free or low-fat milk.” So what if I don’t like pudding? And what is the alleged health benefit of fat-free milk? Surely you don’t think it will lower cholesterol or prevent heart disease, as your own research has demonstrated? And for those interested, please check out the right hand column to see the FDA’s food pyramid in action.
3A study conducted by a consortium of professors from NYU & Yale and reported in The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/nyregion/06calories.html?_r=2&hp). But the article’s anecdotal accounts best characterize the point we are trying to convey.
4The world of professional athletics is littered with examples of coaches with piles of information who continue to make decisions based on their own internal beliefs, what many call “gut instinct.” This tendency is famously documented as the Hot Hand Fallacy. You are coaching a basketball team, the game is tied, and you have ten seconds left for one final shot. Do you give the ball to the player with the best overall shooting percentage (63%) even though for this game he’s only been shooting 40%, or do you give the ball to a player with a lower overall shooting percentage (49%) who has made 8 of his last 9 shots and is shooting 78% for the game (the player with the “hot hand”)? The overwhelming human tendency, despite full knowledge of relevant information, is to give the ball to the player with the “hot hand”, which, from an informed rational standpoint would be incorrect. So much for information.