Marketing and what we put in our mouths

13 09 2014

I work in marketing. The Betty Crocker example at the beginning of this video was used by myself only the other day as an example of how “knowing your market” can make a huge difference to a product’s success.

“Kate Cooper” the marketing consultant is in fact an actress, but the information in the talk she gives is real, and the audience had no idea what they were in for. So their reactions and facial expressions are also real.

The third marketing tool – the “killer” secret weapon – is also very real. It’s not true for just food, but food is one product we should all make active choices about to a much higher degree than we do.

If you need more persuasion… read the novel Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. She defines the trilogy not as Science Fiction (“talking squids in outer space”) but Speculative Fiction (“a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth”).

eTalks – The Secrets of Food Marketing – YouTube.

The message isn’t that eating meat is inherently a bad thing. It is that the powerful desire for making money (a totally artificial human construct) coupled with the wilful gullibility of the general population lead to some pretty horrific results. A theme taken up and run with in Atwood’s trilogy.

I use the website goodreads.com to track the books I read and learn of books I might like to read. I have read several books relating to the history of a single narrow subject. For example Salt and Cotton. Goodreads therefore suggested I might like a similar book, related to Twinkies. It seems the author was shocked to read that several of the ingredients (at least the ones the manufacturer is forced to divulge by law on the label) begin life as various mineral rocks or even petrochemicals. I have a natural aversion to highly processed foods for just this reason, though do freely admit the lure of Salt Sugar Fat can be a powerful one.

Goodreads.com - Twinkie, Deconstructed

As a high school student in the UK, I took an elective course on “pollution”. The first case study was about Alcan (now part of Rio Tinto) and their Aluminium mines in my now adopted country of Canada. No shocking surprise there. Pollution was rife (this is ~1980), with images of huge lurid, toxic tailing ponds. And this was before the Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley disaster! If you doubt the impact of even the most “sensitive” mining operation, try a google search of images of Highland Valley Copper. And they’re one of the best managed operations – particularly with respect to reclamation. Owned by Teck, if you cared. I hadn’t seen fluids that bright since messing with Copper Sulphate in high school!

The second example was colourants and brighteners in frozen peas. Naturally “blanched” frozen peas just “don’t look right”, whereas peas soaked in chemicals look “how people expect”… like they do on the (plastic) packaging. This was an early wake-up call to me as a teenager. It also helped me look at pollution in a different light. Much of it was wilfully accepted as “normal”. The UK and the EU have had reasonably broad food labelling in place for many years now (I’ll pass over how the French managed to get frogs defined as “fish” to allow their farmers to claim fishery subsidies for their odd food tastes.). The regulation of additives is way more stringent than here in Canada (where I am still horrified to find lurid blue sweets and “energy drinks” with dubious substances being consumed by future diabetic kids). But it’s still far from perfect.

We eat 2.5kg of food additives a year, on average. And it’s totally OK, because the manufacturers are now forced to tell us… but we buy it anyway. Wilful ignorance. I was once taught that a market gets the suppliers it deserves… in the same way as a democracy gets the government it deserves. If you want cheap food… you’ll get it. Just don’t expect high quality.

I recently read about a Chipotle fast food restaurant in the US being closed down when the staff all walked out demanding a “fair wage”. The author of the piece pointed out what the food prices would need to be to support those higher wages. And in a job market where the positions could be filled for even LESS than Chipotle were currently paying, the protest seemed ill advised at best. Pointless at worst. The US (and let’s be fair – the West in general) has come to expect easy access to cheap consumer goods – including food. Few, if any, questions asked. If we cared more about working conditions and food quality… we wouldn’t complain about the price necessary to provide that. These things need to be in equilibrium.

The same teacher also took us for Organic Chemistry lessons. When learning about nickel as a catalyst for various chemical reactions, he calmly mentioned that when he was a youngster, it wasn’t uncommon to find bits of the metal in your margarine. It was, after all, a manufactured chemical product. The metals were used to allow the various hydrogenated bonds to form and allow the liquid oils to form more of the fatty consistency we choose to put on our bread. It’s not actually a petro-chemical as some would have you believe, but pretty much any animal or plant oil can be used as a starting point. Again – best not to ask too many questions…

Wikipedia: Margarine

As an adult, I now work for Océ, part of Canon, and involved in digital printing and the graphic arts. Océ though used to make food dye – as long ago as 1865 in fact. Specifically the types of yellow dye you add to the pale creamy white (think: lard) factory-manufactured chemicals formed by metal catalysts, in order to make it look more, er, natural! Like butter substitutes “should” look.

Sleep well tonight, won’t you? And when you pour your cereal in your bowl tomorrow, forget reading the newspaper. Read the box! It really will be educational.

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