Ethics in Food Marketing: Who Assumes the Responsibility?

4 May

Who amongst us hasn’t heard of a court case where a group of people are trying to sue (insert company name here) for fraudulent advertising, leading to obesity?

Teenagers vs. McDonald’sParents vs. NutellaParents vs. Cafeteria Food

Who is to blame for the obesity epidemic in North America?  Should it be the responsibility of the companies to advertise their products honestly?  Or does the onus fall onto the consumers to do their research and make smarter choices?

Tess’ Take

As someone who puts a lot of time into researching and selecting the foods that I consume, I find it almost unfathomable that not all people share the same interest and concern for what goes into our bodies.  We all know what healthy eating looks like – we are not stupid.  The people eating McDonald’s and Nutella have been given the same freedom to choose as the people eating organic fruit and grain-fed chicken.  The final decision is always left to the consumer, and in these instances a little research and common sense go a long way.

However.  I do also feel that companies should be more responsible in their advertising, if not in their manufacturing.  Would it be too much to ask that all food and beverage producers created only products that are safe and healthy for their consumers?  At this point in our evolution, probably so.  But for now, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that these companies practice honest and ethical marketing and advertising.  There are so many companies that are experiencing great success not in spite of, but because of ethical practices (Stonyfield, Kashi, Starbucks…), there’s no reason to believe that profits can only be earned through lies and manipulation of data.

Since when are consumers powerless against corporations?  Last I checked, we control the demand side of the equation.  It’s time we start demanding honesty and integrity from the people who are supplying our food.  Let’s stop relying on pop media and advertising for our information, and let’s start using our brains and good sense to make rational decisions instead.


Jess’ Take

I apologize in advance for the length of my side on this- the severe marketing geek came out in me.  If you make it to the bottom… Damn, you read fast! (Or are just very patient)

I remember growing up and being fascinated by advertising and marketing campaigns; noting product placement logos in films and my favorite TV series’, or laughing and enjoying well-timed comedic commercials.

When I entered into my first year of business school, I knew I didn’t need to wait the required year before declaring my major.  I knew it was going to be in marketing.  The psychology behind a consumer’s buying decisions simply fascinated me, and understanding how certain words will click with certain demographics intriguing.


Even today, I’m a sucker for a good advertising campaign.  I applauded Dove and their “real women” campaign. I laughed out loud over the Kotex tampon commercials. I’m not going to lie: watching an angst-ridden mid-20-something chick wearing black and in a bitchy mood was far more relatable than seeing some breezy all-white-clad goddess of a woman prancing on a beach, loving life. You’re on your period for goodness sakes, not on Prosac.

This all said, while I enjoy marketing and advertising campaigns, I can’t say that I let them lead my life or dictate the majority of my buying decisions. So it was amusing/ pitying when I saw the article recently on the pay-outs by Nutella to parents who filed a suit claiming they were deceived by false advertising on behalf of Nutella.  The suit was filed by a mother who stated she was shocked to discover that Nutella was not in fact a health food and she was horrified to learn she was feeding her four year old daughter a food akin to a candy bar.


Does this woman mean to tell me that she didn’t once turn the jar to take a gander at the nutritional stats that would state this:

Per 1 tbsp, Nutella gives you 100 calories, 6 g of fat, 11g of sugar with only 1g of protein

Ingredients list: Sugar, Vegetable oil, Hazelnuts (13%), Cocoa powder (7.4%), non-fat milk solids, emulsifier (soy lecithin), flavour (vanillin)

Let’s compare those stats with 1 tbsp of natural almond butter. I’m using MaraNatha‘s All-Natural Creamy brand as this is the brand I typically use most often:

Per 2 tbsp, 190 calories, 16g of fat (1.5g saturated fat) 6g carbohydrate (4g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar) 7g protein

Ingredients: dry roasted almonds

So while the caloric and fat content of the latter is substantial, only a small percentage of that is saturated fat, the rest are “good fats”. It’s also worth noting that the sugar content is significantly lower (and not added) while the protein significantly higher.  All of this information can be taken in with a quick look whilst standing in the grocer aisle.  I’d also like to point out that the first two ingredients listed on the Nutella ingredients list is SUGAR followed by OIL.  By law, all products my list their ingredients by weight- so the largest weight of an ingredient will be listed first, the lightest, last.  Refined sugar and processed fat are the two main ingredients to most candy items so yes- Nutella is precisely like a candy bar.  So why did it take this mother so long to figure this out?

Looking at Nutella’s TV commercial, they promote the fact that a balanced breakfast is the right start to your day for you and your children.  Agreed.  Now, obviously this statement is juxtaposed with the Mom making her child a slice of toast smeared with Nutella, drawing conclusion for the viewer that Nutella is a great breakfast option.  So, I will concede that this can be misleading messaging indicating that Nutella is promoting their product as a healthy breakfast option.  They also stress that Nutella is made with hazelnuts, skim milk and a dash of cocoa, whilst avoiding the sugar and vegetable oil content.  Fine, but at the end of the day is this any different than other companies stating their breakfast is an excellent start to your day?

I’m pretty sure Tim Horton’s promotes unhealthy donuts, muffins and breakfast sandwiches, to go with your daily morning coffee, as the perfect start to your day?

Anyone remember the McDonalds Egg-McMuffin advertisements a while back? Sorry, but trans-fat laden bacon/ham/sausage served with an egg and white-bread English muffin doesn’t pack a whole lotta nutrition for you.  Eggo waffles, honey-nut cheerios, granola bars, instant porridge with obnoxious amounts of sugar in their packets… all of these options are promoted as viable breakfast options and the perfect start to your day, yet all of them are pretty low in quality nutritional offerings.   And yes, SOME of these items have that stupid green “health check” on the packaging.  So following this mother’s logic, all of these brands should be forced to pay parents back for misleading them in to thinking these are the most healthful items for breakfast.

Every day we are bombarded with millions of direct-to-consumer messages telling us that we need this product to make our lives better, easier, sexier, healthier, prettier, thinner, etc… it’s the job of marketers.  In today’s world of marketing, we are not simply selling you a product, we are selling you a lifestyle because we want consumers to not only to buy into that product; we want them to become LOYAL to it.

In marketing, we have the 80-20 rule: 80% of your business will come from 20% of your consumers.  In order to get that 20% who will be loyal, you need to tap into what that consumer is after, what they feel they need in their lives.

Now, I do need to reiterate the fact that I am not defending Nutella or any of these other food-brands per se; that is not what I’m set-out to do.  Like Tess, I do think brands need to step it up in the honesty department with the products they are selling.  The messaging in the Nutella advertisements only give you part of the message: yes, a healthy breakfast is an important start to your day, and yes, Nutella IS made with skim milk, hazelnuts and cocoa. Obviously, these are not the only ingredients in Nutella, and it is not the BEST option for a healthy breakfast.    Fine, you’ve got me there.

However, I will also say that Nutella does not out right lie- they do not make any direct claims that Nutella will supplement any specific nutrients your child needs for healthy development, that they are healthier than XYZ, or that they are even healthy.  They make references but that’s it.

Overall, my biggest issue with this whole law suit is the Mother is trying to avoid all responsibility for her decision to purchase Nutella.  Does this Mother mean to tell me that all of her buying decisions are made based only on the advertising messages directed towards her demographic? The clothes she wears, the coffee she drinks (assuming she drinks coffee), the car she drives, the cell phone she may or may not use.  All of these decisions, were made solely on the messaging of the brand? I really doubt it.

Today’s world is one of extreme information sharing.  There are so many opportunities for us as consumers to contrast and compare products, services, and brands.  Hell, there’s even “an app for that“.

At the end of the day, Nutella do not have a gun pointed to our heads telling us that we need to buy their product.  They are doing their best to differentiate themselves from other breakfast foods in the hopes that you’ll reach for them instead of another breakfast spread.  It is our job as a consumer to do our research and practice due diligence.  If you’re looking to buy the healthiest option for breakfast, chances are you’re in the wrong aisle if you’re reaching for the Nutella.




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