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Against the Grain: Why Some Consumers are Anti-Genetically Modified Food and What Marketers Can Do About It

Jamie Ludwig

Virtually everyone can agree with the statement: “Healthy foods are good for you.” But in today’s media-saturated, food-obsessed world, it can be hard to reach a consensus about exactly which foods qualify for that category. For some people, the list might include strictly vegan, plant-based items such as fruits, vegetables, and soy products. For those following a high-protein, low-carbohydrate eating regimen, butter, bacon, and coconut oil might make the grade while oranges, grapes, and potatoes are completely forbidding. Even people who follow the adage “all things in moderation,” might eat more or less amounts of certain foods based on their preconceptions, for example avoiding red meat based on what their parents taught them about health, even if those lessons were based on science from decades ago.

Further complicating the conversation is the existence of genetically modified, or GM, foods (also known as genetically engineered, or GE, foods). These foods, which have been scientifically cultivated from regular foods to have slight changes in their DNA, were first approved by the FDA in the early 90s, and began appearing in U.S. grocery stores in 1994 with the introduction of Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomatoes, GM foods. Since then, they’ve remained the subject of hotly contested debates between consumers, scientists, producers and policymakers. Though much of the scientific community has reached a consensus that approved GM foods can be just as safe their conventional counterparts (and in some cases, may have added benefits such as a longer shelf life or greater ability to withstand harsh temperatures), others continue to believe that altering foods can lead to negative consequences for the environment and pose a risk for those who eat them. These attitudes, have in turn, impacted public opinion; many consumers remain wary of GM foods or distrust them entirely, even if they are aware of scientific evidence that suggests they should accept them.

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In response to the controversy over GM foods, the federal government recently allocated $4.5 million for the FDA to create a campaign to promote GM foods that have received agency approval. To ensure its success, they first needed to learn more about how consumers respond to messaging surrounding GM foods. The approach they took is unique in that it comes from a policy-oriented standpoint to messaging, rather than strictly a consumer point of view.

Why is this even a question / something we care about?

The negative perceptions surrounding FDA-approved GM foods curtails the agency’s ability to use them to fight hunger domestically and internationally, as well as the ability for consumers to make educated choices about the foods they eat. Determining which type of messaging is mostly likely to persuade consumers with strong anti-GM beliefs that these products pose no health risks compared to their conventional counterparts—or educate them about their benefit—may directly and indirectly help alleviate malnutrition and starvation in areas around the world.

What we did:

The researchers conducted three studies on undergraduate business students from the University of Arizona. The first was to determine consumer response to neutral or safety messaging about GM foods. They surveyed them on their attitudes toward GM foods, and then subdivided the group into two categories: pro-GM foods and anti-GM foods. From there, they randomly paired the students and gave them a safety or neutral message about GM foods, and measured their response. While students who held weak anti-GM perceptions were somewhat persuaded by the information, those who already held strong anti-GM beliefs became more resolute in them, and said they would pay more money for non-GM products. (The perceptions of pro-GM students stayed about the same before and after the study). A second study added a risk message along with safety and neutral messages, in this case claiming that GM foods are unsafe for human consumption. Again, strong anti-GM students said they would be willing to pay more for non-GM products. In a third study, a benefit message was added to the safety and neutral messages, but this time the results showed a different pattern: all of the students showed increased GM evaluations.

Key findings:

  • The strength of attitude plays a key role in the determination of how consumers respond to persuasive messages.
  • When tangible benefits, such as benefits to individual health and the environment, are associated with individual GM foods, consumers are likely to be more accepting of those foods.
  • Though weak anti-GM consumers tend to comply with a variety of pro-GM messages, strong anti-GM consumers exhibit message-opposing behavior.
  • Strong and weak anti-GM consumers should be approached using the same messaging. There are risks involved with targeting these groups differently—for example showing strong anti-GM consumers safety-oriented tactics aimed at weak anti-GM consumers can backfire.
  • Benefit-oriented messaging is more effective in persuading both strong and weak anti-GM consumers than neutral or safety-oriented messaging.

Results:

Based on these three studies, the authors determined that pre-existing attitudes impact how consumers respond to persuasive messages regarding GM foods. While weak anti-GM consumers are more likely to be persuaded by a variety of pro-GM messages (safety, neutral, or benefit), strong anti-GM consumers may exhibit message-opposing behavior to the same message. Approaching GM food messaging by promoting its benefits received less message-opposing behavior from strong anti-GM consumers than other types of messagings and also promoted increased acceptance among weak anti-GM and pro-GM consumers.

What does this mean / takeaway for future:

It’s important for the FDA, USDA, and NGOs to understand how to most effectively communicate about GM foods in order to positively impact the public and reach the goals of their campaign. Given how attitude impacts how weak and strong anti-GM consumers respond to persuasive messaging surrounding GM foods, agencies and policymakers should consider approaching all anti-GM consumers with benefits-oriented messaging.

The results of these studies have implications that extend beyond public perceptions of GM foods into other areas where consumers express strong attitudes rooted in personal and planetary health and safety. Policymakers working in areas other than GM foods may take this into consideration when creating campaigns around on key issues for their agencies, such as introducing new vaccines, pharmaceuticals, or construction materials to the marketplace; promoting developments in regional planning, such as factory openings; or infrastructure projects such as energy and waste management.

In addition, marketers and managers outside of government agencies and NGOs can apply these messaging concepts to their own campaigns where consumers express strong attitudes. These may include marketing individual GM foods, or other products where consumers express concern over health and environmental issues, such as cosmetics like sunscreen and makeup, or household cleansers.

Conclusion:

Policymakers must take consumer attitudes into consideration when educating the public, or launching new campaigns. By gearing messaging toward benefits, rather than safety or other elements, campaigns can expect greater results in their efforts to persuade consumers that present strong bias against their particular product or regulation. The concept of strong and weak consumer attitudes can be applied broadly to marketing, especially where health and environmental elements are perceived to be at risk.

Read the full article.

From: Nguyen Pham, Naomi Mandel, “What Influences Consumer Evaluation of Genetically Modified Foods?,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, (February, 2019).

Jamie Ludwig is a freelance writer and media expert based in Chicago.