Will Salt Sugar Fat bring heat on marketing research?

This past Sunday I read with great interest – and concern – an article from the February 24 edition of The New York Times Magazine called “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” Excerpted from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Moss’s new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, it’s packed with the kind of inside information that we in the consuming public, or even those of us in the marketing and/or media biz, are not often privy to and as I read it, I could almost feel the anxiety levels elevating in the boardrooms of the big food companies.

After all, Moss paints an unsavory picture of Big Food. The article offers up four vignettes, involving a range of food industry execs, scientists and researchers (including veteran marketing researcher Howard Moskowitz) and their work on seminal products from Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper to Oscar Mayer’s Lunchables.

Granted, the revelations in the article aren’t all that, well, revelatory. We know that food makers have long taken the “give ‘em what they want” approach and have loaded their products with the delicious-but-debilitating trio referred to in the title of Moss’s book. And we know that a lot of their impetus for doing so –  beyond the profit motive – is based on talking with and observing consumers.

That’s the source of my concern. As I read the article, I wondered what, if any, blowback the marketing research industry might face as a result of the book. In the Times excerpt, a host of research techniques from taste-tests to focus groups are cited as the vehicles through which the food industry gathers the data it needs to develop the products that will satisfy (or exacerbate) our cravings.

Will the book gin up a wave of concern/outrage over marketing research and its use as a tool to pick our brains? Especially in light of the interest in neuromarketing research techniques and the dark activities their critics say they supposedly make possible (manipulation! mind control!), will MR have to mount a fresh campaign to (re)assure the public that we’re actually the good guys and not the agents of corporate greed?

More importantly, the article makes you concerned for those of us in the Western world. We consumers are funny creatures. We all know the role that nutrition plays in our health. There are more sources than ever of information on what to eat and what not to eat. We know when we’re eating healthfully and when we are not.

But for many people, the act of eating is so much more than a mere biological imperative. Those binges on ice cream or chips or cheeseburgers or Little Debbies are all about filling an emotional need (certainly a bottomless pit, for some). I’m not trying to absolve the food industry of its role in the process. I don’t buy the whole “Hey, we’re just giving them what they want!” argument but consumers certainly bear their share of the blame for their choices.

Still, when you read about the precision with which scientists and researchers are calibrating foods and beverages to help us reach our “bliss point,” it’s hard not to feel a bit taken advantage of. For example, though I am immune to the lure of Cheetos – the Virgo in me hates any foodstuff that requires a vigorous hand-washing after consumption –  thanks to Moss I now know the reason certain friends and relatives are powerless before them: vanishing caloric density. As food scientist Steven Witherly says in the article, “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it … you can just keep eating it forever.”

Lest we think that all the angst about junk food is something new, I also found fascinating the insights on chip-eating that Moss quotes from a 1957 report by Ernest Dichter. The famed psychologist listed seven “fears and resistances” to chips: you can’t stop eating them; they’re fattening; they’re not good for you; they’re greasy and messy to eat; they’re too expensive; it’s hard to store the leftovers; and they’re bad for children.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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One Response to Will Salt Sugar Fat bring heat on marketing research?

  1. Wes Michael says:

    It was indeed an interesting article. But there are ways that market researchers can be on the side of good. I recall research done years ago when I was at General Mills. We were able to reduce the sugar in Kix cereal by putting it on the outside rather than equally throughout the corn puff. We were able to use consumer research to confirm that the lower sugar version was equally preferred.