We are deep into election season. Many of us are weary of the relentless negativity, name-calling, and stretching of the truth (no, let’s just call it what it is – lying) that fills television, radio and print media, social media and some of our everyday personal conversations. This year seems to be especially nasty with candidates reaching new lows in terms of angry, destructive, irresponsible speech. To differentiate themselves and shut out their competition, candidates at the national, state, and local level are mercilessly attacking not only their opponents of competing parties, but members of their own parties. I’m not sure if those responsible for the attacks realize the depth of damage that is occurring due to this tactic. There’s now increasingly widespread distrust of anyone involved in government at any level, regardless of party affiliation. As an elected representative at the county level, I can attest to increased skepticism and contempt toward elected and appointed officials. The majority (true, there are bad apples in any group) of people serving are doing so to try to make our communities better, not for personal gain or with a sinister agenda. But due to the current trend, this negative generalization unfortunately paints everyone with the same brush.
There’s a comparison to be made between what’s happening now in the political arena and the current movement in the food industry. To differentiate themselves, with the goal of increased market share and to shut out the competition, food growers, manufacturers, and retailers are employing manipulative tactics similar to those in use by the politicians. The result of this intentionally misleading, fear-based marketing has been an increasingly widespread distrust of farming practices and our food supply. As a farmer, I find myself forced to defend myself, other farmers, and agriculture in general, due to the spread of misinformation.
It’s nearly impossible to check out social media or traditional media sources without hearing or seeing a promotional message for a food item with a negative or misleading slant, disguised as fact. In order to increase sales of a food product (or related product such as a book), drive traffic to a website, or charge an inflated price, sellers are utilizing a negative, emotional advertising style. What bothers me most is that some farmers are using these tactics against each other. Food packaging bearing trendy adjectives has grown in popularity by placing doubt about conventional foods and some technologies in agriculture. Unwarranted demonization of certain food ingredients and production methods is rampant in marketing. Because 98% of the population does not live or work on a farm, has no real connection to farming, and lacks fundamental first-hand knowledge of agriculture, fear-based marketing with no factual basis and only emotional appeal has been quite effective.
Take a look at the recent advertising campaigns by Chipotle and Panera using emotional imaging and romantic idealism and one would think that the only “good” farmers are those with quaint 1940s-style red barns, wearing bib overalls and driving antique tractors. On social media and the internet, savvy marketers like the “Food Babe” prey on emotion and fear to drive business to their affiliated retailers. Stroll the farmers market and you’ll find alarming messaging stating that “food in the grocery store in poison”. Check out labels in the grocery store that bear manipulative statements such as “antibiotic-free” milk, when ALL milk is free of antibiotics, “non-GMO” wheat products, when ALL wheat in the marketplace is non-GMO, or chicken with “no hormones added”, when ALL poultry is free of added hormones. Messages like these may be effective sales drivers in the short-term for the seller, but have a long-lasting impact by creating a lingering confusion and doubt toward an entire industry that can be quite difficult to overcome.
The fact is: we have the safest food supply in the world, enjoy relatively affordable food prices, and have a wide array of choices in our grocery stores and farmers markets to suit the budget and personal preferences of most everyone. Because of the destruction of trust due to widespread misinformation, what we are so fortunate to have could be threatened.
How about trying something different? Politicians could advertise their experience and vision – stay out of the mud. Food marketers could promote the attributes and benefits of their product, if it’s delicious and nutritious it should be easy to sell – no need to bash the competition or instill fear.
To me, the parallel between political campaign messaging and food marketing campaigns is evident. To my friends in the agriculture industry, I wish that we’d stop the use of anti-scientific, fear-based, irresponsible marketing. There are plenty of challenges in farming without having to defend against the myriad of false claims. To my non-farm friends, both rural and urban, I ask that you think about the messages, the motivation behind them, and realize that not all sources have the same level of credibility. Please be rational rather than emotional, ask questions of those with first-hand experience and not take a sales pitch as fact. I’d like to put this election season behind me just as soon as possible, let’s do the same with negative food marketing.