Sometimes I wonder if we should scrub the word “consumer” from the pages of this magazine.
Ultimately, doing so wouldn’t be a practical move, as it is good shorthand for the role of the people at the end of the supply chain. But sometimes I wonder if it seems derogatory, defining people by how they use a resource. I wonder if it reduces people to a collection of material objects and shopping list items, rather than thinking citizens or members of the public.
Lately, I have been wondering how Burger King’s U.S. marketing team views its own customers, especially after the restaurant chain launched its “reduced methane” burgers with its farting cows ad. The ad, in case you missed it, features a song-and-dance about how Burger King’s lemongrass feedlot ration will cut cattle methane emissions by a third.
There are plenty of issues with this marketing claim, starting with the statement that cows fart methane (incorrect). And although Burger King is happy to leverage some preliminary research into a marketing claim, it hasn’t made the research public, waited until the peer review process was complete, or advertised the fact that the results are not clean-cut. Nor do they give beef producers credit for their existing environmentally sound practices. The beef industry has a problem, the commercial conveys, but Burger King has the silver bullet, which they’ve generously offered to share with everyone by open-sourcing their ration.
Perhaps Burger King’s customers will eat this up. Or maybe they’ll file the campaign under greenwashing. Time will tell. While it’s reasonable to expect that most consumers don’t know the ins and outs of the beef industry, I personally think they deserve more credit than this ad gives them. The beef industry certainly deserves better.
Burger King is far from alone in making hyperbolic marketing claims. A person wonders how we’ve got to this point, where consumers are accorded so little respect.
While the word consumer, as we think of it, is relatively new, members of the purchasing public were not generally respected, historically. According to an article written by Frank Trentmann in The Atlantic, most European states tried to curb consumption of luxury goods through “sumptuary laws” in the 14th to 18th centuries (“How humans became ‘consumers’: A history”). For example, the fashion police had real authority in 18th century Germany, where they could toss a woman in jail for wearing a cotton neckerchief.
Trentmann writes that “limited money and resources in an era before sustained growth” allowed rulers and moralists to justify these laws. If people spent their money on luxury goods produced in other countries, that meant less money for the local economy, and the local ruler’s treasury. Local producers were held in higher esteem, as they were “heralded as sources of strength and virtue. Consumers, by contrast, were seen as fickle and a drain on wealth.”
By the late 19th century, this thinking shifted. William Stanley Jevons wrote that a product’s value depended on how much a person desired it, not the cost of producing it. In other words, the consumer created the value — or at least decided how much value a product had.
Over the years, economists debated whether consumers would move from simply wanting things to wanting to improve themselves, travel, support the arts, and seek well-made goods that would favour skilled and better-paid labour. Economists also developed the idea that spending habits affected a household’s welfare. Ernst Engel theorized that the greater a family’s income, the smaller the proportion of income spent on food (Engel’s Law), which meant more money for other things.
What I found quite interesting was Trentmann’s writing on the “citizen-consumer” and consumer co-operatives. Consumer co-operatives really took off before the first World War, with a quarter of English households holding such a membership. Women were leaders in these co-operatives — for example, Florence Kelley led 15,000 activists in New York (interestingly, her Quaker aunt had campaigned against goods grown by slaves). This made a lot of sense, as women did much of the shopping for households, and that purchasing power was nothing to sniff at, especially as households had more disposable income.
These movements also fueled campaigns for the women’s vote, which again makes sense to me. After all, as B.B. King used to sing, “You’ve got to pay the cost to be the boss.” Trentmann notes that while there are still consumer associations and activists today, they have become dispersed, with movements for everything from slow food to ethical dog food. Still, if I was a betting woman, I would put money down on environmental activists having even more influence in five years.
The pandemic seems like a pressure cooker to me. As we’ve all been clamped down, some pre-existing movements have gathered steam, boiled over or even exploded. There’s been a lot of talk about “Buy Local” and “Buy Canadian” movements strengthening, as well as even more emphasis on food safety and transparency moving forward. The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity is going to gauge public perspective on the pandemic and food in its public trust research this fall, so it will be interesting to see those initial results.
During Ag In Motion Discovery Plus, Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell of McDonald’s Canada was on a beef industry sustainability panel. He presented research from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity showing that although most consumers don’t invest a lot of trust in restaurants, over 40 per cent hold them responsible for providing credible information. Grocery stores saw slightly better but similar results. Producers topped lists for trust levels and perceived responsibility to provide good information (although there’s always room for improvement).
That should be a wake-up call for any food marketers who think a little misinformation might go a long way. The message from consumers is clear: Do better.