"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Deceptive Marketing’

Corporate Crimes In the Cereal Aisle: How Companies Are Fooling You Into Thinking Their Products Are Good For You

In Uncategorized on October 28, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Oldspeak:Generally “natural” is thought to imply the absence of pesticides and genetically engineered organisms, but a closer look at the crunchy goodness inside the boxes reveals the content of both. Tests showed as high as 100 percent genetically engineered (GE) contaminated ingredients in popular products like Kashi GoLean, Mother’s Bumpers, Nutritious Living Hi-Lo, and General Mills Kix. Even the brands explicitly claiming to be “non-GMO” failed the test, some of them containing more that 50 percent GE corn. Organic products, such as Nature’s Path certified organic corn flakes, were GMO and GE free when tested. Why does it matter? Because these companies exploit consumers’ desire for conscious consumption and make us feed the system we think we are taking a stance against: Industrial agriculture.” –Ida Hartmann The Transnational Corporate Network is hard at work trying to make you pay more for “food” you think is better for you, but in fact makes you sick. Still more evidence that the “profit-motive” is by far the most destructive force created by humans. It supersedes ethical behaviour, morality, concern for others and the environment. “Profit Is Paramount”.

Related Story:

Kashi, Burt’s Bees, Tom’s of Maine, Naked Juice: Your Favorite Good, Natural, Socially Conscious Brands? Owned By The Corporatocracy

Landmark Study Finds 93 Percent Of Unborn Babies Contaminated With Monsanto’s Genetically Modified ‘Food’ BT Toxin

Why You Can Now Kiss Organic Beef, Dairy And Many Vegetables Goodbye Courtesy Of Monsanto

USDA Approved Monsanto Alfalfa Despite Warnings Of New Infertility Causing Pathogen Discovered In Genetically Engineered Crops

By Ida Hartmann @ Alter Net:

A trip to the supermarket is an adventure into a tempting and treacherous jungle. The insatiable hunger for a ready-made breakfast that nourishes our bodies and our social conscience has made our morning bowls of cereal a hiding place for corporate charlatans. A new report, Cereal Crimes, by the Cornucopia Institute discloses the toxic truth about “natural” products and unmasks corporate faces like Kellogg’s hiding behind supposedly “family-run” businesses such as Kashi.

When these breakfast barons forage for profit, we eaters are the prey. But what are the laws of this jungle? And how do we avoid being ripped off by products that are hazardous for our health and our environment? Let’s have a look at some of these corporations’ sneaky strategies.

First, there is intentional confusion. With so many different kinds of cereal lining the shelves, figuring out which is the best requires detective work. Many make claims about health, boasting “no trans fats,” “gluten-free,” and “a boost of omega three.” Others play to environmental concerns declaring “earthy harmony,” “nature in balance,” and “sustainable soils.” With the legion of labels, separating wheat from chaff seems impossible, but the report offers one rule of thumb: Don’t confuse organic with “natural.”

Organics, certified and recognizable by the green USDA label, are required by federal law to be produced without toxic inputs and genetically engineered ingredients. “Natural,” on the other hand, is defined by the producers themselves to mislead shoppers and protect shareholders. Cornucopia’s report found that, “When determining their ‘natural’ standards, companies will consider their profitability. Environmental concerns are unlikely to weigh heavily, if at all, in this profitability equation.”

Too bad we’ve been falling for it. The report cites a 2009 poll showing 33 percent of the public trusts the “natural” label while 45 percent trust the organic label.

Generally “natural” is thought to imply the absence of pesticides and genetically engineered organisms, but a closer look at the crunchy goodness inside the boxes reveals the content of both. Tests run by the institute showed as high as 100 percent genetically engineered (GE) contaminated ingredients in popular products like Kashi GoLean, Mother’s Bumpers, Nutritious Living Hi-Lo, and General Mills Kix. Even the brands explicitly claiming to be “non-GMO” failed the test, some of them containing more that 50 percent GE corn. Organic products, such as Nature’s Path certified organic corn flakes, were GMO and GE free when tested.

Moreover, conventional ingredients, which “natural” products contain, have been found to hold traces of pesticides. The USDA found detectable neurotoxins in popular breakfast ingredients like oats, wheat, soybeans, corn, almonds, raisins, blueberries, honey and cranberries. New studies are constantly finding new health risks associated with exposure to pesticides. One such found that exposure during pregnancy increased the risk of a pervasive developmental disorder and delays of mental development at 2 to 3 years of age, while another found postnatal exposure to be associated with behavioral problems, poorer short-term memory and motor skills, and longer reaction times among children. Adding to the picture, a recent study by University of Montreal and Harvard University found association between organophosphate in children and ADHD.

It is time for us to reconsider what we associate with the term “natural.” In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan sends out a warning against health claims on food: “As a general rule it’s a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over in the Cereal the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their new found ‘whole-grain goodness’ to the rafters.”

The same applies to “natural.” Labeling broccoli “natural” would offend common sense. This is the irony of marketing: On a spectrum between whole foods and processed products, the loudest “natural” claims sound from the latter end.

So why do we eaters swallow these cereal scams? The report exposes how breakfast barons intentionally blur the line between organic and natural.

The “natural” products are predominantly camouflaged in brown and green boxes, mimicking the colors of nature, creating an association between “natural” and sustainable agriculture. Packaging images such as rolling fields, grazing cows or smiling farmers give us the impression that by throwing these products in our basket we take a stance against industrial agriculture.

And the producers market themselves as family-run, small-scale business. The Kashi Web site reads: “We are a small (after 25 years, still fewer than 70 of us) band of passionate people who believe right down to our bones that everyone has the power to make positive changes in their lives.” Conveniently absent from packages and Web site is the fact that Kellogg, the largest cereal manufacturer in the country, acquired Kashi back in 2000. Kellogg also owns Bear Naked. General Mills, the second largest breakfast company in the country owns Cascadian Farm, and Back to Nature is run by Kraft Foods, a company with almost $50 million revenue in 2010.

Why does it matter? Because these companies exploit consumers’ desire for conscious consumption and make us feed the system we think we are taking a stance against: Industrial agriculture.

But this is only the beginning of the scam.

The report reveals another strategy: Bait-and-switch. Peace Cereal eloquently performed the maneuver. The brand started out organic, but in 2008 switched to cheaper conventional ingredients and adopted the “natural” label, without changing packaging, pricing or barcode. Many shoppers and retailers did not notice that the USDA label quietly disappeared from the bottom right-hand corner.

Similarly a number of brands market their names as organic by loudly promoting the few certified products on the shelf, ignoring the fact that most of their products are mere conventional ones labeled as “natural.” Annie’s Homegrown, for example, was featured in a 12-page advertisement section in the Washington Post, paid for by the Organic Trade Organization and aimed at educating consumers on the benefits of organics. Nowhere did it mention that only one of five cereal products made by Annie’s Homegrown is organic. That takes an investigation of the fine print on the box many of us don’t perform as we race through the aisle in the short minutes we often have to shop.

But if these natural cereals are nothing but cheap conventional ones in fancy dresses, one would at least expect them to be cheaper than organic products. The report, however, shows just the opposite, and suggests that, “some companies are taking advantage of consumer confusion regarding the difference between the meaningless natural label and certified organic claims.”

So next time you find yourself with a box of organic cereal in your right hand, and a box of natural cereal in your left, remember to read the fine print. Don’t be fooled by labels that are meant to sell products, not look after your health or the environment.

 

ConAgra Sued Over GMO ‘100% Natural’ Cooking Oils

In Uncategorized on August 24, 2011 at 3:41 pm


Oldspeak:
According to the Center for Food Safety: “upwards of 70 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves — from soda to soup, crackers to condiments — contain genetically-engineered ingredients.” While it’s unclear how many of these products also claim to be natural, given all the greenwashing going on these days, it’s likely to number in the thousands.  Specifically, up to 85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered as are 91 percent of soybeans, both extremely common ingredients in processed foods. Numerous groups including the Center for Food Safety have been calling attention to the potential hazards of GMOs for years. From their websiteA number of studies over the past decade have revealed that genetically engineered foods can pose serious risks to humans, domesticated animals, wildlife and the environment. Human health effects can include higher risks of toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, immune-suppression and cancer.” –Michelle Simon. Fully 91% of the U.S. food supply is contaminated with artificially created substances known to cause rises in food allergies, diabetes, obesity, autism,  immune system dysfunction, asthma, cancer and heart disease, low birth-weight babies , and infant mortality. And it’s knowingly being passed off as “natural”. Why the need to hide its presence? Why object to truth in labeling efforts? The goal is to get you to believe that the frankenfood your eating is real. That it’s good for you. That it’s not making you sick. People have to begin rejecting it en masse for changes, like those that have taken place in other countries, to happen here. Spread the word about its dangers, to everyone you know an encourage them to limit their consumption of it. Knowledge is Power.”

By Michelle Simon @ Food Safety News: 

If you use Wesson brand cooking oils, you may be able to join a class action against food giant ConAgra for deceptively marketing the products as natural.
These days it’s hard to walk down a supermarket aisle without bumping into a food product that claims to be “all-natural.” If you’ve ever wondered how even some junk food products can claim this moniker (witness: Cheetos Natural Puff White Cheddar Cheese Flavored Snacks – doesn’t that sound like it came straight from your garden?) the answer is simple if illogical: the Food and Drug Administration has not defined the term natural.

So food marketers, knowing that many shoppers are increasingly concerned about healthful eating, figured: why not just slap the natural label on anything we can get away with? That wishful thinking may soon be coming to an end if a few clever consumer lawyers have anything to say about it.

While various lawsuits have been filed in recent years claiming that food companies using the term natural are engaging in deceptive marketing, a suit filed in June in California against ConAgra could make the entire industrial food complex shake in its boots.

The plaintiff claims he relied on Wesson oils “100% natural” label, when the products are actually made from genetically modified organisms.

GMOs Not Exactly Natural, So Says Monsanto

Ironically, the complaint cites a definition of GMOs by none other than Monsanto, the company most notorious for its promotion of the technology. According to Monsanto, GMOs are: “Plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs.”

The complaint also quotes a GMO definition from the World Health Organization: “Organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.”
Four Wesson varieties are implicated in the case: Canola Oil, Vegetable Oil, Corn Oil, and Best Blend. And it’s not just on the label that ConAgra is using the natural claim, but also online and in print advertisements. (Additional silly health claims on the website include “cholesterol free”–vegetable oils couldn’t possibly contain cholesterol anyway.)

The complaint describes the extent of ConAgra’s deception, alleging the “labels are intended to evoke a natural, wholesome product.” And further:

The “100% Natural” statement is, like much of the label on Wesson Oils, displayed in vibrant green. The “Wesson” name is haloed by the image of the sun, and the Canola Oil features a picture of a green heart.

A green heart — you just can’t get any healthier than that. However, as registered dietitian Andy Bellatti told me: “These oils are high in omega 6 fatty acids, which in excessive amounts are actually bad for your heart.” Guess they left that part out of the green heart icon.

Supermarkets Chock-full of GMOs

But what makes this lawsuit especially intriguing is its potentially far-ranging impact. According to the Center for Food Safety: “upwards of 70 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves — from soda to soup, crackers to condiments — contain genetically-engineered ingredients.” While it’s unclear how many of these products also claim to be natural, given all the greenwashing going on these days, it’s likely to number in the thousands.

Specifically, up to 85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered as are 91 percent of soybeans, both extremely common ingredients in processed foods. Numerous groups including the Center for Food Safety have been calling attention to the potential hazards of GMOs for years. From their website:

A number of studies over the past decade have revealed that genetically engineered foods can pose serious risks to humans, domesticated animals, wildlife and the environment. Human health effects can include higher risks of toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, immune-suppression and cancer.

Not exactly the stuff that green hearts are made of. The legal complaint also notes that on its corporate website (“but not on the Wesson site that consumers are more likely to visit”), ConAgra implies that its oils are genetically engineered. The company concludes: “Ultimately, consumers will decide what is acceptable in the marketplace based on the best science and public information available.”

But by being told the oils are “100% natural,” consumers can no longer make an informed decision as they are being misled.

Which reminds me of a great quote from Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser: “If they have to put the word ‘natural’ on a box to convince you, it probably isn’t.”

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Michele Simon is a public health lawyer specializing in industry marketing and lobbying tactics. She is the author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, and research and policy director at Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog group.

NeuroFocus Uses “Neuromarketing” To Hack Your Brain

In Uncategorized on August 23, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Oldspeak:”Neuromarketing Hackers, hacking INTO YOUR BRAIN to find new and more insidious ways to sell you shit you don’t need: GOOD. “Anonymous” Hackers, hacking into computer networks to bring to light lax security of your sensitive and personal data stored on the internet: BAD. In a glowing article written in a magazine owned by marketing company Neilsen Research about a company NeuroFocus also owned by Nielsen Research, we glimpse the future of “marketing”: subconscious thought manipulation. Indeed, psychotronic warfare, like many other initially military applications (Internet, LASER, Kevlar, Radar, GPS, etc etc) has been adapted for civilian use. Only in a society of based on profit-driven overconsumption and materialism can a technology that has the potential to aid corporations in manipulating your behavior on a subconscious level be seen as a good thing. Never mind the slippery slope. What’s to stop this technology from being used to suppress undesirable behaviors, like dissent and protest? What’s to stop ‘every Wall Street banker, politician, and corporate CEO with gobs of cash and a desire to manipulate your brain?” –Paul B. Farrell.  They’re not content to bombard you with ads to entice you to buy their brand. They want to literally get inside your mind and  MAKE you choose to do so, whether your want it or not. Literally neurologically engineering your consent, creating a society of “Happiness Machines“. “Ignorance Is Strength”

By Adam L. Penenberg @ Fast Company:

K. Pradeep knows what you like and why you like it. Take the sleek, slick iPad. Ask Mac lovers why they adore their tablet and they’ll say it’s the convenience, the touch screen, the design, the versatility. But Apple aficionados don’t just like their iPads; they’re preprogammed to like them. It’s in their subconscious–the curves, the way it feels in their hands, and in the hormones their brains secrete when they touch the screen. “When you move an icon on the iPad and it does what you thought it would do, you’re surprised and delighted it actually happened,” he says. “That surprise and delight turns into a dopamine squirt, and you don’t even know why you liked it.”

Pradeep is the founder and CEO of science-based consumer-research firm NeuroFocus, a Berkeley, California-based company wholly owned by Nielsen Holdings N.V. that claims to have the tools to tap into your brain (or, as Woody Allen called it, “my second favorite organ”). You might say Pradeep was born to plumb the depths of our minds. The “A.K.” in his name stands for Anantha Krishnan, which translates as “unending consciousness”; Pradeep means “illumination.” Fortunately, he doesn’t refer to himself as Unending Illuminated Consciousness, preferring, as is custom in his native region of India, a single name: Pradeep. “Like Prince or Madonna,” he explains.

On this particular spring day, he’s in New York to offer a presentation at the 75th Advertising Research Foundation conference. As he holds court on a small stage in a ballroom of the Marriott Marquis in Midtown, Pradeep seems to relish the spotlight. Swizzle-stick thin and topped with unruly jet-black hair, the effusive 48-year-old is sharply dressed, from his spectacles to his black jacket and red-and-black silk shirt, and all the way down to his shiny boots. He stands out, needless to say, from the collective geekdom gathered at this egghead advertising fest.

Speaking with the speed and percussive enunciation of an auctioneer, Pradeep is at the conference today to introduce his company’s latest innovation: a product called Mynd, the world’s first portable, wireless electroencephalogram (EEG) scanner. The skullcap-size device sports dozens of sensors that rest on a subject’s head like a crown of thorns. It covers the entire area of the brain, he explains, so it can comprehensively capture synaptic waves; but unlike previous models, it doesn’t require messy gel. What’s more, users can capture, amplify, and instantaneously dispatch a subject’s brain waves in real time, via Bluetooth, to another device–a remote laptop, say, an iPhone, or that much-beloved iPad. Over the coming months, Neuro-Focus plans to give away Mynds to home panelists across the country. Consumers will be paid to wear them while they watch TV, head to movie theaters, or shop at the mall. The firm will collect the resulting streams of data and use them to analyze the participants’ deep subconscious responses to the commercials, products, brands, and messages of its clients. NeuroFocus data crunchers can then identify the products and brands that are the most appealing (and the ones whose packaging and labels are dreary turnoffs), the characters in a Hollywood film that engender the strongest emotional attachments, and the exact second viewers tune out an ad.

These corporations share the same goal: to mine your brain so they can blow your mind with products you deeply desire.

Pradeep and his team in Berkeley are hardly the first to make a direct connection between brain function and how it determines consumer behavior. Advertisers, marketers, and product developers have deployed social psychology for decades to influence whether you buy Coke or Pepsi, or a small or an extra-large popcorn. Like the feather weight of that mobile phone? Suddenly gravitating to a new kind of beer at the store? Inexplicably craving a bag of Cheetos? From eye-deceiving design to product placement gimmickry, advertisers and marketers have long exploited our basic human patterns, the ones that are as rudimentary and predictable as Pavlov’s slobbering dog.

NeuroFocus CEO A.K. Pradeep thinks that traditional focus groups are a Cro-Magnon form of market research.
NeuroFocus CEO A.K. Pradeep thinks that traditional focus groups are a Cro-Magnon form of market research. | Photo by Gene Lee

NeuroFocus, however, promises something deeper, with unprecedented access into the nooks and crannies of the subconscious. It’s a tantalizing claim, given that businesses spend trillions of dollars each year on advertising, marketing, and product R&D, and see, by some estimates, 80% of all their new products fail. The hope that neuroscience can provide more accurate results than traditional focus groups and other traditional market research is why Citi, Google, HP, and Microsoft, as well as soda companies, brewers, retailers, manufacturers, and media companies have all become NeuroFocus clients in the past six years. When salty-snack purveyor Frito-Lay looked to increase sales of its single-serve 100-calorie snacks to women, it tapped NeuroFocus, whose research informed new packaging and a new ad campaign. CBS partnered with the firm to measure responses to new shows and TV pilots; Arts & Entertainment (A&E) had NeuroFocus track viewers’ second-by-second neurological reactions to commercials to ensure that its programs work with the ads that fund them; and Pradeep’s team helped ESPN display the logos of its corporate advertisers more effectively on-air. California Olive Ranch had NeuroFocus test its olive-oil labels for maximum appeal. And, as we’ll see later, Intel hired the company to better understand its global branding proposition, while PayPal sought a more refined corporate identity.

These corporations vary widely, but they share a fundamental goal: to mine your brain so they can blow your mind with products you deeply desire. With NeuroFocus’s help, they think they can know you better than you know yourself.

Orange cheese dust. That wholly unnatural neon stuff that gloms onto your fingers when you’re mindlessly snacking on chips or doodles. The stuff you don’t think about until you realize you’ve smeared it on your shirt or couch cushions–and then keep on eating anyway, despite your better intentions. Orange cheese dust is probably not the first thing you think of when talking about how the brain functions, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that makes NeuroFocus, and neuromarketing in general, such a potentially huge and growing business. In 2008, Frito-Lay hired NeuroFocus to look into Cheetos, the junk-food staple. After scanning the brains of a carefully chosen group of consumers, the NeuroFocus team discovered that the icky coating triggers an unusually powerful response in the brain: a sense of giddy subversion that consumers enjoy over the messiness of the product. In other words, the sticky stuff is what makes those snacks such a sticky brand. Frito-Lay leveraged that information into its advertising campaign for Cheetos, which has made the most of the mess. For its efforts, NeuroFocus earned a Grand Ogilvy award for advertising research, given out by the Advertising Research Foundation, for “demonstrating the most successful use of research in the creation of superior advertising that achieves a critical business objective.”

This seemingly precise way of unveiling the brain’s inner secrets is the ultimate promise of neuromarketing, a science (or perhaps an art) that picks up electrical signals from the brain and spins them through software to analyze the responses and translate those signals into layman’s terms. While evolving in tandem with advances in neuroscience, the field owes much to a study conducted at the Baylor College of Medicine in 2004 to investigate the power of brand perception on consumer taste preferences. Based on the famous Coke vs. Pepsi tests of yesteryear, volunteers had their brains scanned in an MRI as they sampled each beverage. When they didn’t know what they were drinking, half liked Coke and half liked Pepsi. When they did know, however, most preferred Coke, and their brain scans showed a great deal of activity in the cranial areas associated with memory and emotion. In other words, the power of Coke’s brand is so great that it preps your brain to enjoy its flavor–and presumably to influence your purchasing decisions when you’re in the supermarket.

Since the Baylor study, neurotesters have turned to the EEG as their standard measurement tool, rather than the MRI. For starters, the MRI is bulkier, harder to administer, and expensive. Far more important, however, is the fact that an EEG measures the brain’s electrical activity on the scalp, while an MRI records changes in blood flow inside the brain. This means that an EEG reading can be done almost in real time, while an MRI’s has a five-second delay. MRIs provide beautiful, high-resolution pictures, ideal for identifying tumors and other abnormalities, but they are useless for tracking quick-hit reactions.

For example, imagine that you are asked to generate an action verb in response to the word ball. Within 200 milliseconds, your brain has absorbed the request. Impulses move to the motor cortex and drive your articulators to respond, and you might say “throw.” This process happens far too fast for an MRI to record. But an EEG can capture virtually every neurological impulse that results from that single word: ball.

This is where modern neuromarketing exists–at the very creation of an unconscious idea, in the wisp of time between the instant your brain receives a stimulus and subconsciously reacts. There, data are unfiltered, uncorrupted by your conscious mind, which hasn’t yet had the chance to formulate and deliver a response in words or gestures. During this vital half-second, your subconscious mind is free from cultural bias, differences in language and education, and memories. Whatever happens there is neurologically pure, unlike when your conscious mind takes over and actually changes the data by putting them through myriad mental mechanisms. It’s all the action inside you before your conscious mind does the societally responsible thing and reminds you that artificially flavored and colored cheese dust laced with monosodium glutamate is, well, gross.

With the instantaneous readings of EEG sensors, neuromarketers can track electrical waves as they relate to emotion, memory, and attention from specific areas of the brain: namely, the amygdala, an almond-shaped region that plays a role in storing emotionally charged memories and helps trigger physical reactions (sweaty palms, a faster heartbeat); the hippocampus, where memory lurks; and the lateral prefrontal cortex, which governs high-level cognitive powers (one being attention). Once the brain waves are collected, complex algorithms can sift through the data to connect each reaction to a specific moment.

Neuromarketers like Pradeep argue that this testing is much more efficient, cost effective, and precise than traditional methods like focus groups. While Gallup must poll roughly a thousand people to achieve a 4% margin of error, NeuroFocus tests just two dozen subjects for its corporate clients–and even that is a sample size larger than those deployed by leading academic neuroscience labs. This is possible because people’s brains are remarkably alike, even though there are some differences between male and female brains, and between those of children and senior citizens. And NeuroFocus collects a massive amount of input, recording and analyzing billions of data points during a typical neurological testing project. This is the genius of neuromarketing, according to a booster like Pradeep. He promises an accurate read of the subconscious mind. Focus groups and surveys, on the other hand, give an imprecise measure of the conscious mind, of so-called articulated, or self-reported, responses. They are one step removed from actual emotion, inherently weak: like flashbacks in a film. They are fine for eliciting facts, less so for probing into what people really feel.

Ray Poynter of the Future Place saves his harshest criticism for neuromarketers: “They are overclaiming massively.”

Not everyone agrees that neuromarketing is the next great thing, of course. Because its research has been primarily corporate funded and its tangible results primarily anecdotal, neuromarketing is not without detractors, who tend to lump it in with the array of businesses, like biometrics or facial mapping, that promise all sorts of new-wave marketing breakthroughs. Ray Poynter, founder of the Future Place, a social-media consultancy in Nottingham, England, colors himself a skeptic on all of them but saves his harshest criticism for neuromarketers. He believes they offer far more hype than science. “Neuromarketers are overclaiming massively,” he says. “While it is likely to reduce the number of bad mistakes, and slightly increase the chance of good things happening, it’s all a matter of degree.”

Even so, it’s hard to imagine neuromarketing proving less reliable than traditional market research. For decades, marketers have relied on focus groups and surveys to divine what consumers want, using these methods to solicit feedback on their attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and perceptions about an advertisement, a product and its packaging, or a service. Each year, hundreds of thousands of focus groups are organized around the world, and about $4.5 billion is spent globally on qualitative market research.

This kind of “mother-in-law research,” as ad exec Kirk Cheyfitz calls it, has all manner of shortcomings. It’s not statistically significant, so it’s risky to graft your findings onto the population at large. One or two blowhards may hijack an entire panel, and researchers can, without knowing it, influence participants. The world has changed, and yet so much market research is still conducted the same old way.

Brain Eaters

Companies try to keep their neuromarketing efforts secret. Here are six that we flushed out.

Illustration by Superexpresso

[Illustration by Superexpresso]

“I bet you, long ago if you looked at cave paintings, there were a bunch of Cro-Magnon men and women sitting around a fire in focus groups wondering whether to go hunt mastodon that night,” Pradeep says. “Today, our focus groups are no different.” In the tale of our inner lives, we have always been unreliable narrators. Pradeep believes he can get at the truth.

When David Ginsberg joined Intel in 2009 as the company’s director of insights and market research, he was something of an expert on the slippery nature of “truth,” having spent 15 years working on political campaigns for John Edwards, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton. Ginsberg was downright skeptical of neuromarketing, or, as he calls it, “nonconscious-based research.” He thought it had more to do with science fiction than reality. But he also knew that Intel had been conducting market research as if it were still 1965, with surveys that were the equivalent of sending Gallup off to knock on thousands of doors. That may have worked decently in the days when a person bought a computer based on specs–processing speed, RAM, etc. But in an age where virtually every computer is sold with power to spare, Ginsberg knew that the rationale for buying a certain computer was as much emotional as it was rational. To compete in this new market, Intel the company had to understand how people felt about Intel the brand.

“If you ask people if they know Intel, something like 90% will say they know Intel,” Ginsberg says. “Ask if they like Intel, a huge percentage will say they like Intel. Ask them [to rank or name] tech leaders, however, and we come out much lower on the list.” Ginsberg felt that he needed to understand consumers’ feelings at a deeper level: What words did consumers associate with Intel? Were these associations altered by one’s culture? Ginsberg decided to run pilot tests with a number of market-research firms, and despite his sense of neuromarketing as mumbo jumbo, he included NeuroFocus. What he learned surprised him and turned him into a believer.

NeuroFocus structured its test for Intel as it does most of its market research, patterning it after something called the Evoked Response Potential test, a staple of neuroscience. Test subjects were paid to come to a NeuroFocus lab and put on a cap with 64 sensors that would measure electrical activity across the brain. Because the U.S. and China are two very important markets for Intel, NeuroFocus tested groups of 24 consumers (half men, half women) in Berkeley and in a midsize city in China’s Sichuan Province.

In a quiet room, each test subject was shown the words “achieve,” “possibilities,” “explore,” “opportunity,” “potentiality,” “identify,” “discover,” “resolves,” and “solves problems.” Each flitted by on a TV screen at half-second intervals. The subject was instructed to press a button whenever she saw a word with a letter underscored by a red dot. After several minutes of this subconscious-priming word test, she was shown a few Intel ads. Following this, the words were again presented on the screen, this time without the dots.

The exercise served two functions: First, the red dots focused the subject’s attention; second, they gave NeuroFocus a baseline measure of the brain’s response, since each time a test subject saw the red dot, her brain went “A-ha! There’s a word with a red dot.” Click.

Pradeep knows how to read your mind--so long as you put on that device first.
Pradeep knows how to read your mind–so long as you put on that device first. | Photo by Gene Lee

When NeuroFocus later analyzed the EEG readings, it looked for those same “a-ha” moments from the period during which the subject had viewed the Intel ads. The words that provoked the most such responses were “achieve” and “opportunity.” Interestingly, women in the U.S. and in China had virtually the same response post-advertisements, as did American men and Chinese men. The differences were in the genders; on both sides of the pond, men and women had strikingly different reactions. “Achieve” prompted the most intense reaction among women, while men gravitated toward “opportunity. ”

Says Ginsberg: “This was incredibly fascinating to us. There seem to be fundamental values across humanity.” He believes that Intel would have never learned this through traditional market research and focus groups, where cultural biases come into play. He also concluded that there are differences in how men and women think, and that these differences cross cultural boundaries. This is not news to Pradeep, who points out that male and female brains are different, and not in a Larry Summers women-aren’t-as-good-at-math-and-science-as-men-are kind of way. The female brain is our default brain when we are in the womb. But at week eight, about half of all fetuses are bathed in testosterone. These now-male brains close down certain communication centers in the brain while opening up others geared toward sex and aggression. In female brains, meanwhile, the communication pathways continue to evolve, intricate neural routes are constructed across both hemispheres, and areas dedicated to emotion blossom. Life seems to imitate a beer commercial, doesn’t it?

Now Intel is changing its marketing strategy. “A brand that helps people achieve and offers opportunity has a phenomenal brand attribute,” Ginsberg says. “It gives you a new perspective on things, to understand your consumer better.” The NeuroFocus findings have informed the next round of creative advertising you’ll see from Intel, due to emerge later this year. “I guarantee when you see these ads you’ll see a straight line,” Ginsberg adds. “The study gave us fresh insights to talk about things we didn’t have permission to talk about before.”

It is conceivable that Intel could have redirected its advertising toward achievement and opportunity with the help of focus groups. But Ginsberg feels, and Pradeep fervently believes, that neuromarketing has a much better shot at getting closer to the unconscious truth, and therefore proving more effective. Still, the difference between the two forms of research sometimes seems to be just a matter of degrees.

Barry Herstein left American Express to join PayPal in October 2007 as global chief marketing officer with the goal of giving eBay’s transaction-processing division a coherent marketing strategy. After the first few weeks, he knew just how difficult the task would be. Almost every time he asked a PayPal employee, “What’s the big idea behind PayPal?” the following response came back: “Safe, simple, wow!”

“Safe, simple, wow?” Herstein scoffs. “That’s not a big idea. It’s a tagline.” It didn’t even make sense. Wasn’t any payment product supposed to be safe and simple? He supposed that software engineers might know that paying for things was complicated, but having worked at American Express and Citi, he knew that the consumer didn’t think that was the case. And “wow”? He cringed. Then, after a series of brainstorming sessions and conversations with a broad range of customers, he hired NeuroFocus to help him figure out the basic concepts around which he could build a new global identity for PayPal.

As part of its standard methodology, NeuroFocus captures the subconscious resonance consumers have for seven brand attributes: form, function, and benefits, as well as feelings (the emotional connection a brand elicits from consumers), values (what it represents), metaphors (aspirations, challenges, lessons, or life events that seem connected to the product), and extensions (the unexpected and perhaps illogical feelings it inspires). Based on his earlier brainstorming sessions, Herstein asked NeuroFocus to home in on three attributes and create three phrases for testing within each. For function he offered “convenient,” “fast,” and “secure”; for feelings, “confident,” “hassle-free,” and “in the know”; and for benefits, “new opportunity,” “on my side,” and “empowering.” The 21-person panel had 11 men and 10 women and was also segmented into regular, light, and non-PayPal shoppers.

According to NeuroFocus, “fast” ranked the highest in the function category. (Notably, “fast” was not acknowledged in any way by “safe, simple, wow.”) In fact, according to the brain heat map that NeuroFocus created from the aggregated data, speed is a huge advantage that sets off extremely positive feelings, especially from regular users. The more people use PayPal, it seems, the more they appreciate how quickly they can close transactions. For the feelings category, “in the know” resonated best, and in benefits, “on my side” won out.

Examining brand attributes is a standard of traditional market testing, of course. Herstein ran a parallel, more conventional track at the same time as his NeuroFocus study, creating a conventional online survey. The results were significantly different. While the word “fast” resonated with this group, the phrase “on my side” wound up at the bottom of the benefits category, which was topped instead by “confident”–a word that had finished dead last among men in the NeuroFocus study.

Herstein trusted the NeuroFocus results, though, and set out to create a coherent global image for the company based on them. That image would humanize PayPal by emphasizing the outcomes it delivers, not the act of paying; nowhere in the new marketing would you find any dreaded, dreary images of two people hovering around a computer. “People don’t want to see that,” Herstein says. “They want to see people enjoying either what they just bought or the time that it gives them by paying fast.”

Not everyone at the company was sold on his new approach. The heads of some foreign markets–Herstein declined to name which– predicted that the new campaign would bomb. Herstein says that his boss, PayPal president Scott Thompson, told him he was crazy–but Herstein was willing to stake his reputation on the new approach.

What happened? According to Herstein, when he changed PayPal’s visual and verbal identity across the company’s email and web pages, click-through and response rates increased three to four times. “I’m telling you, in the world of direct marketing, the words ‘400% improvement’ don’t exist,” he says. “If you can go from 1.2% response rate to 1.3%, you’ll get a promotion, right? And if you can take something from a 4% response rate to 16%? Unheard of.”

“The mystique is that there’s a way to turn consumers into robots to buy products. That’s simply not the case,” says one neuromarketer.

Herstein has left PayPal to join Snapfish and now sits on NeuroFocus’s board as an unpaid adviser. While eBay confirms the basics of his account, it won’t confirm his description of the outcomes from the marketing campaign he created; a spokesman repeatedly asked Fast Company not to include this information in our story.

This bid for secrecy is entirely in keeping with the aura around neuromarketing, an industry that is both highly confident about what it can deliver and very nervous about its perception in the broader world. Several neuromarketing firms were approached for this story, but the only one that would do more than provide vague descriptions of its work was NeuroFocus, which is by all accounts the industry leader. Out of dozens of its corporate clients, very few would agree to discuss their work with the firm.

Neuromarketing outfits are afraid of being branded as trendy voodoo science, no more trustworthy than palm readers. Such a perception, they believe, will wither with good results. Perhaps more worrying is the other end of the speculative spectrum, which posits that corporations armed with our neurological data will be able to push a secret “buy button” in our brains. This is a fear promulgated by, among others, Paul B. Farrell, a columnist for Dow Jones and author of The Millionaire Code. He calls this buy button your brain’s “true decision-making processor,” a “weapon of mass delusion.” You end up like a computer “without virus protection” and “exposed to every Wall Street banker, politician, and corporate CEO with gobs of cash and a desire to manipulate your brain.”

“There’s still this mystique that there’s a way to control consumers and turn them into robots to purchase products,” says Ron Wright, president and CEO of Sands Research, a rival neuromarketing firm based in El Paso, Texas. “That is simply not the case.” Nevertheless, after spending time with Pradeep, you get the feeling we’ve only just begun to tap the potential of this new movement. Pradeep is not a neuroscientist. He’s a former GE engineer and consultant who became fascinated by neuromarketing after a conversation with a neuroscientist who sat next to him on a cross-continental flight. After seven years at the helm of NeuroFocus, he sees every product relationship in terms of the brain, like a virtuoso musician who hears music in everyday sounds, from the clackety noise of a woman’s heels on a wooden floor to the melange of notes from a car engine.

On a sun-drenched afternoon in Berkeley, we tour the shops at the local mall. We stop in front of a Victoria’s Secret plate-glass window and Pradeep points out the ambiguous expression of a lingerie model on one of its posters. He explains that the brain is constantly looking out for our survival and as part of that is always ready to measure another person’s intent. Is that stranger happy? Angry? Sad? When an expression is not easy to decipher, we do a database search through our collection of faces–curious, worried, nervous, threatening–to choose which is closest to the one we see, and match it. “If the expression is easy to decipher, I hardly glance,” he says. “But if the expression is relatively hard to decipher, she makes me open the cupboard of memory.” Contrast this with the nearby Bebe store, where Pradeep shakes his head at the headless mannequins in the window. “Now that’s what I call a crime against humanity. Money down the drain.”

At the Apple store, we pause at a desktop computer and he explains why it’s always better to put images on the left side of the screen and text on the right: “That’s how the brain likes to see it,” he says. “If you flip it around, the right frontal looks at the words and has to flip it over the corpus callosum to the left frontal lobe. You make the brain do one extra step, and the brain hates you for that.” Pradeep loves Apple, and he loves to talk about Apple, in part because Steve Jobs never has been and probably never will be a client. (Apple doesn’t even use focus groups. Jonathan Ive, Apple’s top designer, famously said they lead to bland products designed to offend no one.) But the real reason he loves talking about Apple is that he believes the company has elevated basic design to high art, a hugely successful strategy that Pradeep thinks is justified by our most basic neurological underpinnings.

Which brings us back to that iPad. Pradeep claims the brain loves curves but detests sharp edges, which set off an avoidance response in our subconscious. In the same way our ancestors stood clear of sticks or jagged stones fashioned into weapons, we avoid sharp angles, viewing them as potential threats. NeuroFocus has performed several studies for retailers and food manufacturers and found that test subjects prefer in-store displays with rounded edges over those with sharper edges. In one instance, when these new rounded displays were rolled out to replace traditional store shelving, sales rose 15%.

But curved edges are only one reason for the iPad’s success. We also like how the tablet feels, how sleek and well balanced it is. Signals generated by our palms and fingers, along with lips and genitals, take up the most surface area within our brain’s sensory zone. The way a product feels in our hands can be a major selling point. It’s why we prefer glass bottles to cans, which NeuroFocus product-consumption studies bear out, although it’s not just the material, it’s also the slender curve of the bottle and the ridges in it. The touch screen, too, is a mental magnet and can induce those hormonal secretions Pradeep likes describing.

Why we like these curves no one knows for sure. Perhaps our brains correlate curves with nourishment–that is to say, mommy. (Calling Dr. Freud.) In men, it could be sexual. One study asked men to view before-and-after pictures of naked women who underwent cosmetic surgery to shrink their waists and add to their derrieres. The men’s brains responded as if they had been rewarded with drugs and alcohol. But this response to curves may be even more primal than sex, or beer. Another study suggested that men seek women with curves because women’s hips and thighs contain higher doses of omega-3 fatty acids, which nurture babies’ brains and lead to healthier offspring.

This is the flip side to our fears of neuromarketing: the potential to look at our choices in a new way that blends science, psychology, and history. Lately, NeuroFocus has been moving into product development, providing research to companies that will influence how products look, feel, and function before they hit the market. That’s what the firm is doing with its Mynd crown of sensors. But Pradeep has visions that go far beyond testing products, packaging, and commercials. He imagines neurotesting as ideal for court-room trials: A defense attorney could pretest opening and closing arguments for emotional resonance with mock juries. And while NeuroFocus is not getting involved in politics, he says that competitors of his helped Republican politicians shape their messages for the 2010 midterm elections.

One stunning application of neurotesting is the work of Robert Knight, Pradeep’s chief science officer, and a host of other neuroscience researchers who are trying to develop a way for quadriplegics to control their wheel-chairs just by thinking alone. When you watch someone move a hand to grab a can of soda, mirror neurons in your brain react as if you were grasping it yourself. Knight is studying which brain signals can be translated into software commands to drive a wheelchair. To further this research, Knight, part of the team that invented the Mynd, plans to give it away to scientists and labs around the world. And the next iteration, he promises, will be a big step up, with eye-tracking capability, a built-in video camera, and three times as many sensors for greater brain coverage. “If our limbs will not respond to the beauty of your thinking or your feeling, that is a horror beyond horrors,” Pradeep says. “Restoring a little bit of gesture, a little bit of movement, a little bit of control to that beautiful mind is an extraordinary thing to do.”

He seems sincere, passionate even, though of course I cannot read his mind.

A version of this article appears in the September 2011 issue of Fast Company.

Correction: Neurofocus is owned by Nielsen Holdings N.V., not Nielsen Research as stated in the original article.

 

Kashi, Burt’s Bees, Tom’s of Maine, Naked Juice: Your Favorite Good, Natural, Socially Conscious Brands? Owned By The Corporatocracy.

In Uncategorized on June 18, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Oldspeak: “Burt’s Bees; owned by Clorox. Tom’s of Maine; Owned by Colgate-Palmolive. Kashi Cereals; Owned by Kellogg’s. Naked Juice; owned by PepsiCo. The Body Shop; owned by L’oreal/Nestle. Most all “Naturally Produced Spring Water”  is actually corporate owned tap water. Deliberately deceptive ‘Marketing strategies have been fooling us to trust that the niche brands continue to be small, environmentally conscious businesses that combine ecologically sound practices with a political agenda to put products out on the market under a business model of “the Greater Good.” In fact, they are frequently cogs in the giant corporate wheel.‘ –  Andrea Whitfill Most all socially conscious, environmentally friendly brands are now nothing more than revenue streams for profit-hungry Megaconglomorates. The commons, social, environmental, political, media, have been commodified and corporatized. Is there no way to escape giving our hard-earned dollars to the decidedly anti-social, anti-environmentally friendly entities that are destroying and exploiting our planet and peoples alike? But I guess the fundamental Catch 22 question as discussed in the article is this: “If you want to change what people consume on a grand scale, you have to penetrate mass markets. ‘And you can’t do that if you’re a small, specialist brand stuck in the organic or whole-food niche, even if that means you are on supermarket shelves. It is a familiar dilemma: stay pure and have a big impact on a small scale, or compromise and have a small impact on a grand scale.’ –Roger Cowe

By Andrea Whitfill @ Alter Net:

My first introduction to natural, organic and eco-friendly products stems back to the early ’90s, when I stumbled upon Burt’s Bees lip balm at an independently owned health food store in the heart of Westport, Kansas City, Mo.

Before the eyesore invasion of ’98, when Starbucks frothed its way into the neighborhood, leading to its ultimate demise, Westport was the kind of  ‘hood I still yearn for. It was saturated with historically preserved, hip and funky, mom-and-pop-type establishments, delivering their goods people to people.

I was surprised more recently when I saw Burt’s Bees products everywhere — in grocery stores, drug stores, corner bodegas and big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart. I thought to myself, fantastic; the marketplace is working, and good for Burt. He has made his mark, and the demand for his products is on the rise.

Needless to say, I was shocked when I recently found out that Burt’s Bees is now owned by Clorox, a massive corporate company that has historically cared very little about the environment, but whose main industry is directly associated with harmful chemicals, some of which require warning labels for legal sale.

Clorox; yes, that’s right — the bleach company with an estimated revenue of $ 4.8 billion that employs nearly 7,600 workers (now bees) and sells products like Liquid-Plumr, Pine-Sol and Armor All, a far cry from the origins of Burt.

I now understood. The reason Burt’s Bees products were everywhere was precisely because they now had a powerful corporation in the driver’s seat, with big marketing budgets and existing distribution systems.

The story of Burt is a charming one gone bad. Burt Shavitz, a beekeeper in Dexter, Maine, lived an extremely humble life selling honey in pickle jars from the back of his pickup truck and resided in the wilderness inside a turkey coop without running water or electricity.

In the summer of 1984, Shavitz was driving down the road and spotted a hitchhiker who needed a lift to the post office. He pulled over and picked up Roxanne Quimby, a 34-year-old woman who eventually became Shavitz’s lover and business partner. Quimby started helping him tend to the beehives, and that eventually led to the all natural-inspired health care products made with Shavitz’s honey and the birth of Burt’s Bees products.

Burt’s story and very powerful narrative gave Burt’s Bees products their legitimacy in my book. Creative entrepreneurs and knowledgeable consumers together working their magic; not the results of a corporate behemoth out to dominate the marketplace.

However, Quimby and Shavitz’s relationship became ‘sticky’ in the late ’90s for reasons unclear, yet probably having little to do with honey. Their romantic break up carried over to the split of their business partnership as well. In 1999, Quimby bought out Shavitz’s shares of the company for a small six-figure sum. Quimby then continued, becoming phenomenally successfully and growing sales to $43.5 million by 2002.

In 2003, a private equity firm, AEA investors, purchased 80 percent of Burt’s Bees from Quimby, with her retaining a 20 percent share and a seat on the board. In 2006, John Replogle, the former general manager of Unilever’s skin-care division became CEO and president of Burt’s Bees. The company was sold to Clorox in late October 2007 for $925 million.

Quimby was paid more than $300 million for her stake in Burt’s Bees. At the time of that deal, Shavitz reportedly demanded more money, and Quimby agreed to pay him $4 million. Quimby now refurbishes fancy, swank homes in Florida, travels the world and buys massive chunks of land in her free time. Our bearded man Shavitz, on the other hand, now 73 and unchanged, continues to reside amidst nature in his now-expanded turkey coop, which still remains absent of electricity or running water.

The Burt’s Bees story is disconcerting. I vaguely remembered long ago that one of my favorite ice cream products, Ben & Jerry’s, sold out. Unilever (which also owns Breyers), the giant conglomerate with an estimated market cap of $50 billion and close to 174,000 employees, bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 for $326 million.

I began to wonder about the other products I liked, trusted and respected for their independence and their social responsibility. How many were really owned by big corporations, who were going out of their way to hide the link between the big corporate company with the small, socially responsible brand? It didn’t take long for my list of disappointments to grow and grow.

Upon first meeting someone, I can usually tell a quite a lot about them by the contents of their bathroom. The brand I see most often behind medicine cabinets of people I consider to be environmentally conscious is Tom’s of Maine. What Tom’s says to me about the person is that they are willing to spend a little bit of extra cash in order to take proactive steps to help green the Earth.

Well, no more. My bathroom assessments will never be the same. Tom’s of Maine is owned by Colgate-Palmolive, a massive, tank-like company with an estimated 36,000 employees and revenue of approximately $11.4 billion. Its big products include: Ajax, Anbesol and Speedstick.

I am only left to wonder, is Trader Joe’s, popularly known to showcase Tom’s of Maine in its hygiene department, just as much in the dark about all of this as I have been? Or is Joe’s simply another conduit for big corporate products?

As my curiosity grew, I took a little field trip to the grocery store with one of my friends to be a “brand anthropologist.” “Let’s get to the bottom of this,” I said, aiming to check out all of the brands that I and countless other good consumers were buying in our efforts to support grassroots business and not corporate behemoths. Little did I know how deep the hole was going to be, and in some cases, how hard to find out who owns what.

Thinking Dairy

In the dairy section sit many flavors of Stoneyfield Farm Yogurt. I knew its socially conscious CEO, Gary Hirshberg, had created major organic brand recognition to become the No. 1 seller of organic yogurt in the United States, but since then Danone, the French conglomerate (which also owns Brown Cow), acquired a majority holding in Stoneyfield. This is the same Danone that had to recall large quantities of its yogurt in 2007 after it was found to contain unsafe levels of dioxins. (In an interesting twist, the still-active Hirshberg sits on the board of Dannon U.S.A. Unlike most of the early entrepreneurs, who took the dough and left the scene, Hirshberg is still involved. )

Meanwhile, I learned that Horizon Organic milk was bought out by the largest dairy company in the U.S., Dean Foods Co., in 2005.

Thirsty? Juices and Water

Next I ventured to the juice section. Drinking Odwalla juices was an expensive habit I had justified for years because of its healthy California brand. The ubiquitous refrigerators in thousands of stores should have given it away that Odwalla wasn’t the small company it once was. It is now owned by Coca-Cola. Almost as soon as Coca-Cola bought the company, back in 2001 for $181 million, it stopped selling the fresh-squeezed OJ that had made Odwalla famous and popular among the healthy set. With its massive distribution system, fresh squeezed wouldn’t last the days and weeks the juices are in transit or on the shelf.

Not to be outdone (although it took it a while), Pepsi bought Naked Juice in 2006 for $450 million, in order to compete with Odwalla. Smuckers, the brand we are told is the “brand we can trust”, grabbed several juice mainstays from the health food store shelves: After the fall — R.W. Knudsen and Santa Cruz Organic.

Turns out that Coca-Cola also owns Glaceau, the company once known for its “fresh new approach to bottled water that is inspired by nature and enhanced by science.” Glaceau is the maker of Vitamin Water, Fruit Water, Smart Water and Vitamin Energy — all bottled waters that are adorably marketed and loaded with sugar. It’s no wonder Coca-Cola was slapped with a lawsuit in 2006 for making deceptive and unsubstantiated health claims in its Vitamin Water marketing strategies; they are selling glorified sugar water.

As for bottled water, egads! That’s a whole article in and of itself. The scourge of bottled water, of course, is an environmental disaster on many levels, as corporations have moved in to take control of water local supplies, while some of the same companies and their mega advertising budgets have created a giant market for bottled water, with enormous waste from plastic bottles and giant carbon foot prints as water is shipped over many thousands of miles from Fiji for example, or Italy, when pretty much no bottled water is needed. Frequently, tap water is of higher quality and more closely tested than bottled water.

And as Michael Blanding notes on AlterNet, “In fact, many times bottled water is tap water. Contrary to the image of water flowing from pristine mountain springs, more than a quarter of bottled water actually comes from municipal water supplies. The industry is dominated by three companies, who together control more than half the market: Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani; Pepsi, which produces Aquafina; and Nestle, which produces several “local” brands, including Poland Spring, Arrowhead, Deer Park, Ozarka and Calistoga. Both Coke and Pepsi exclusively use tap water for their sources, while Nestle uses tap water in some brands.

The Breakfast Nook

Over in the breakfast aisle, my friend was a bit apoplectic when we learned that the “super healthy” Kashi cereals, the favorites of millions of healthy breakfast eaters, was bought in July 2000 for an “undisclosed sum” by Kellogg’s, the 12th-largest company in North American food sales, according to Food Processing. I picked up a box of Kashi’s “Go Lean Crunch” and searched every word; not one mention of the fact that Kellogg’s owns them. That change was rally below the radar. In 2004, Kraft Foods, known for processed cheeses and Kool-Aid, bought the natural cereal maker Back to Nature. Kraft is a subsidiary of Altria, which also owns Philip Morris USA, one of the world’s largest producers of cigarettes.

According to the New York Times, “Many of the alternative cereal brands are owned by larger companies, including Kellogg and General Mills.”

“Cereals, like milk, are one of the primary entrance points for use of organics,” said Lara Christenson of Spins, a market research group for the natural products industry, “which is pretty closely tied to children — health concerns, keeping pesticides, especially antibiotics, out of the diets of children. These large firms wanted to get a foothold in the natural and organic marketplace. Because of the mind-set of consumers, branding of these products has to be very different than traditional cereals.”

These corporate connections are often kept quiet. “There is frequently a backlash when a big cereal package-goods company buys a natural or organic company,” Christenson said. “I don’t want to say it’s manipulative, but consumers are led to believe these brands are pure, natural or organic brands. It’s very purposely done.”

A little more digging shows that General Mills owns Cascadian Farm; Barbara’s Bakery is owned by Weetabix, the leading British cereal company, which is owned by a private investment firm in England; Mother’s makes it clear that it is owned by Quaker Oats (which is owned by PepsiCo); Health Valley and Arrowhead Mills are owned by Hain Celestial Group, a natural food company traded on the NASDAQ, with H.J. Heinz owning 16 percent of that company.

The Sweet Tooth

After the Kashi news, I wondered what was next? I didn’t have to go any further than the organic chocolate aisle of my favorite deli to find Green and Black’s organic chocolate was taken over in 2005 by Schweppes, the 10th-largest company in North American packaged-food sales. And even more surprising to chocolate lovers is that Dagoba Chocolate, which had a little cult chocolate following for a while, is surprise, surprise, owned by Hershey Foods.

There seems to be an apt analogy between the huge growth in the “naturalization” of packaged goods in grocery stores and supermarket aisles and the massive transformation of organic fresh foods. Organic farming began as a grassroots movement to produce food that was healthier and better for the land. But it is now a huge, $20 billion industry, increasingly dominated by large agribusiness companies. Furthermore, when the government certifies food as “organic,” it has nothing to do with the original values of locally grown produce, workers being treated fairly, etc.

So it may cheer some to know that on the East Coast, McDonald’s has served fair-trade-certified Newman’s Own organic coffee in stores, while others may cringe at the words of Lee Scott, former CEO of WalMart, when he said, “We are particularly excited about organic food, the fastest-growing category in all of food.”

“What’s important to keep in mind is that these big corporations are getting into organics not because they have doubts about their prior business practices or doubts about chemical, industrial agriculture,” said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. “They’re getting in because they want to make a lot of money — they want to make it fast.” He said the companies couldn’t care less about “family farmers making the transition to organic farms.”

What does this all mean? One conclusion it is easy to come to is that big food companies and the stores and supermarkets that deliver their goods have stretched and abused descriptions of food until they are sometimes almost meaningless, and consumers believe that they are getting more benefits than they actually are. Consumers “walk down the aisle in the grocery stores’ health and beauty area, and they’re confronted with ‘natural’ at every turn,” says Daniel Fabricant, vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs at the Natural Products Association. “We just don’t want to see the term misused any longer.”

On the other hand, Roger Cowe, a financial commentator states: “If you want to change what people consume on a grand scale, you have to penetrate mass markets. And you can’t do that if you’re a small, specialist brand stuck in the organic or whole-food niche, even if that means you are on supermarket shelves. It is a familiar dilemma: stay pure and have a big impact on a small scale, or compromise and have a small impact on a grand scale.”

Some think that socially responsible business sellers don’t lose it all when selling out. Both Craig Sams from Green and Black chocolate and the late Anita Roddick from the Body Shop ( sold to L’Oreal/Nestle — one of the most vilified of multinational companies) have said that they believe that an acquired ethical company can influence its new parent to improve its corporate behavior.

Others are not so positive about this turn of events. Judy Wickes from the Social Venture Network describes corporate takeovers of socially responsible businesses as “a threat to democracy when wealth and power are concentrated into a few hands.” And David Korten, in his book,When Corporations Rule the World, explained how sustainable business “should be human scale — not necessarily tiny firms, but preferably not more than 500 people — always with a bias to smaller is better.”

It is clear that so-called organic brands are a rapidly growing portion of the consumer dollar, and that every major food corporation has invested deeply in buying these already-established brands.

Marketing strategies have been fooling us to trust that the niche brands continue to be small, environmentally conscious businesses that combine ecologically sound practices with a political agenda to put products out on the market under a business model of “the Greater Good.”

In fact, they are frequently cogs in the giant corporate wheel. I like to refer to this “other” business model as “We’ve Been Had.” It is time for we, the consumer, to question how much the ownership and neglectful marketing of these “pseudo” responsible brands warrant crossing them off our shopping list.

And it is time to find products more in tune with our values, which include thinking small. At least until they, too, get bought out by some large conglomerate.