Chipotle vs. Science
Health-food advertising depends on the eagerness of the customer to be fooled.
By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. in the Wall Street Journal
Stuart Chase, an FDR aide who coined the term “New Deal” and began his career as a food-safety regulator, once said: “The very first law in advertising is to avoid the concrete promise and cultivate the delightfully vague.”
He was being cynical, but his advice has been thoroughly adopted by food marketers peddling to consumers who would probably consider themselves his philosophical heirs. Desperate to revive flagging sales, Pepsi announced this week that it would no longer use the artificial sweetener aspartame, which will no doubt lead to “aspartame-free” being prominently placed on packaging where Coke shoppers can notice it.
Not that Pepsi will say that aspartame is bad for you. There are product disparagement laws in many states, plus Pepsi itself fed aspartame to its customers for years. In fact, to its credit, Pepsi this week cited “decades of studies” finding no health risk and admitted it was simply surrendering to a prejudice of customers who’ve been listening to faux food-safety campaigners on the make.
On the make describes perfectly Chipotle Mexican Grill : In announcing this week plans to stop using genetically modified ingredients, the fast-food chain couldn’t say GMO-free food was safer and healthier. Instead, the company was at pains to suggest with delightful vagueness an unconcrete promise. “They say these ingredients are safe,” Chipotle founder Steve Ells told CNN “but I think we all know we’d rather have food that doesn’t contain them.”
This is called marketing; periodically Chipotle rolls out a new claim about organic ingredients or friendly treatment of animals to keep its brand fresh in the public’s mind. Over the years the courts, in enforcing the Lanham Act, a federal law banning false advertising, have carved out a considerable zone for “puffery.” Puffery, as one case puts it, is “an exaggeration or overstatement expressed in broad, vague, and commendatory language. Such sales talk is considered to be offered and understood as an expression of the seller’s opinion only, which is to be discounted as such by the buyer.”
A defense of puffery, ironically, is that no “statistically significant part of the commercial audience holds the false belief allegedly communicated by the challenged advertisement.”
It’s exactly this safe harbor, which Chipotle frolics in, that the food industry risks surrendering by its persistent conflation of the terms natural, healthy and safe. Though Pizza Hut was ultimately defeated, its legal Stalingrad in the early 2000s against Papa John’s over its slogan “better ingredients, better pizza” left behind an influential legacy. Purina is currently waging a fight with pet-food manufacturer Blue Buffalo, whose incantatory use of terms like “antioxidant” and “phytonutrient” has been mocked on Saturday Night Live. Blue Buffalo’s founder, a former cigarette marketer, cheerfully has told Business Week “smoke and mirrors” is the “stuff we were good at.”
Of course, because such advertising depends on the eagerness of the customer to be fooled, a better solution than lawsuits might be an education system that lowers the general level of idiocy in the population. We also shouldn’t exaggerate the effect of marketing: 99% of the reason people eat at Chipotle is the food, not the advertising. And 99% of the function of advertising is to remind customers that a product exists, not to deliver specific claims about it.
Chipotle’s health-food messaging isn’t about the food anyway; it’s about the customer and his sense of entitlement and moral vanity.
Still, competitors have to compete against such messages, and Chipotle has been good at getting its messages trumpeted in the media, though perhaps revulsion is starting to set in. Not a week before its own aspartame announcement, Pepsi’s CEO Indra Nooyi, during an earnings call, went off on the public ignorance that such marketing both fosters and exploits, noting that millennials think “real sugar” is a health food, and that “organic, non-GMO products” are the epitome of nutrition “even if they are high-salt, high-sugar, high-fat.”
Heartening too has been the press reaction to Chipotle. Mother Jones pointed out that “GMOs are totally safe,” while Gizmodo.com pronounced the company’s position “some anti-Science pandering bull-expletive.” An L.A. Times op-ed by two scientists stated, “More than two decades of research indicate that GMOs are not only safe for humans and the environment, but also contribute to global sustainability and poverty alleviation.”
If anyone of note congratulated Chipotle for its stance, we haven’t heard it—and that’s a revelation in itself. Chipotle is not really on a crusade for healthier eating but trying to sell more burritos. Expect the company to shut up for a while.