Moral Motivations: A Test Soon to Come to a Supermarket Near You

REUTERS/Mike Blake

REUTERS/Mike Blake

Reuters reports that a major study by scientists from the London School of Hygiene & Topical Medicine at the University of London shows organic foods have no nutritional benefit over conventional foods:

A systematic review of 162 scientific papers published in the scientific literature over the last 50 years, however, found there was no significant difference.

“A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance,” said Alan Dangour, one of the report’s authors.

“Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.”

Now we haven’t heard anything about possible contradictions to the study, flaws in the methodology, whatever, so the scientists who produced this report might be doing a whole lot of voodoo instead of science.  (See, e.g., climate change ‘science’.)  But let us for the time being and for our purposes assume that the study is accurate and true.

What is fascinating for me is the test this scenario provides for the idea of moral motivation in consumers.  Explored in articles like this one about what motivates people in social networks, the idea is that modern consumers like to Do Good, at least when it isn’t inconvenient to do so.  People apparently will buy “green” products because they like to Do Good, and it’s easy — as simple as paying money at the counter.

Now, the organic food movement predates all of this to some extent; Whole Foods (a flagship of the organic food movement) was founded in 1978 after all at the height of the Disco Era.  The premise behind organic foods, I always thought, was that naturally grown foods is better for you.  The reason that I, as a consumer, am willing to pay two or three times the price for a gallon of milk was that organic milk — free from hormones, pesticides, whatever — was healthier for me and my family.  Over time, the organic food movement has blended with a variety of other socio-political movements like sustainability, humane kill, local foods (“locavore“), green, ecological concerns, and so on.  But I still believe that most organic food consumers — like my parents for example — buy organic foods because they believe the organic foods are good for them, not for the environment or animals or whatever.

So… whither organic foods if this study is true?  The test between 7DS Marketing and Moral Motivation Marketing is at hand.

Organic Foods Under 7DS Method

Hieronymous Bosch, Seven Deadly Sins

Hieronymous Bosch, Seven Deadly Sins

When I look at organic foods in general, I find that they fall rather neatly under 7DS methodology with one critical difference: Fear.  Up until this study, it was reasonable to believe that organic foods were in fact better for you — nevermind the environment and all that jazz.  Surely corn grown without the use of chemical pesticides has to be “better” that conventional corn, no?  Surely meat and poultry that wasn’t fed a cocktail of hormones or whatever has to be better for the person eating them, no?

A significant part of the motivation to spend the extra money for organic produce and meat came from an underlying fear — a primal motivator of human behavior.  If eating “conventional” foods could possibly lead to my getting sick or dead, surely it makes sense to spend a few extra bucks to eat natural?

In the modern American economy with layers upon layers of protection for food purity (including lawsuits), most consumers are probably not afraid of dropping dead from eating conventional lettuce.  But the entire notion of “it’s better for you” is undergirded by Fear.

Additionally, there was always an element of Gluttony, Vanity and Envy with organic foods.

Gluttony is perhaps obvious for any food-related marketing, but organic food corresponded fairly well with the growth of foodies as well.  People who love fine cuisine, whether at home or at the hands of chefs, tended to believe (and still do, and frankly, may be right for all I know) that natural, organic foods simply taste better.

Vanity, however, was also an important contributor.  The natural human desire — indeed, a fundamental motivator — to be or at least be seen as being better than the rest was and remains a powerful contributor to buying organic.  Having a fridge filled with only organic foods makes a statement about you, in much the same way that having a closet full of designer clothing says something about you.  The poor folk, the people on food stamps, might be buying Wonder Bread and Skippy peanut butter, but we the elite for whom health is extremely important buy artisan bread made from organic grains and handmade peanut butter from organic peanuts!  It helped that organic foods fit in perfectly with the modern urban elite lifestyle of health-consciousness (Fear) which just happens to coincide with our society’s ideals of beauty (Vanity).

Once the Vanity appeal is established and socially spread, Envy appeal is nearly inevitable; indeed, it is impossible to stop.  If the wealthy elites, if the beautiful people, were buying organic foods, then why… I too should be buying organic.  What do they have that I don’t have? I can afford to pay $6 for a head of lettuce, just like Hollywood stars can!  (True, the Hollywood stars have their personal chefs and maids do the shopping, but that’s a different story.)

In all cases, under 7DS analysis, organic foods were going to be successful because fundamental human motivations underlay consuming organics: Fear, Gluttony, Vanity, and Envy.

Now remove Fear from the equation.  Organic foods are no healthier, no better for you than conventional foods.  That $6 head of lettuce will provide exactly the same amount of nutrition as the $0.99 head of lettuce from Big Agriculture farms.  The pesticides and fertilizers and all that have zero impact on your health.

What does that do?

Now, as a marketer, you’re left with Gluttony, Vanity, and Envy.  Still pretty good, but that Vanity play is going to be hard to sustain in a global recession/depression into which we are heading.  Folks might be willing to pay extra money out of Fear (health concerns) but they might pause if it’s just to impress their health-club friends, or for some self-image enhancer.  Foodies will remain foodies, but that group is a relatively small portion of the market.

In fact, without the health benefits, the Vanity/Envy play can be taken out entirely by cultural changes.  Imagine this dinner conversation six months from now:

“Is this organic milk?”

“Why yes it is — we only buy organic.”

“Must be nice to spend $6 for a gallon of milk when so many people are going hungry and unemployment is at 12%.  How do you sleep at night?”

Think it’s impossible? Think again.  A week ago, the organic buyer could have huffed, “Well, I care about the poor too, but my family’s health is far more important!”  Today, not so much.  Now you’re completely exposed as a vain spendthrift insensitive to the needs of others.

Organic Foods Under Moral Motivator Theory

In contrast, organic foods under Moral Motivator theory can be seen more as a statement of Altruism.  Yes, I buy organic because it’s healthier for me, but that isn’t the real reason.  No, the real reason is that organic produce is better for the environment, better for farmers (who make more money), better for the animals (free-range and humane kill), and so on.

There is some power to the theory since the organic food movement quickly added on a bunch of other essentially selfless ideologies such as concern for the environment and Fair Trade and so on.

Removing the Fear element inherent in the “organic is healthier” claim should not, then, affect organic food consumers very much.  They’re not buying organic simply because it’s better for them; they’re buying organic because of all of the other associates social goods.  And they like to Do Good.

Thing is, the Moral Motivator theory is entirely shallow and depends upon people who are well-off and well-disposed.  Time and again, people have shown that they might pay lip service to various Do-Gooder initiatives, but when it comes to parting with their own money or inconveniencing themselves to Do Good, there’s always an excuse or another.  Health benefits was, I believe, the great equalizer.  It’s one thing to say, “It’s better for me, and besides, it does so much social good”.  It’s another thing altogether to say, “It isn’t any better for me, but I’ll pay extra for all the social good.”

And finally, as in the anti-Vanity example above, the Moral Motivator theory is extremely vulnerable to shifts in public opinion.  Again, paying $6 for local organice lettuce because of all of the social good it does is fine in economic boom times — doing it when unemployment is at 12% and soup kitchens are running out of food is going to be difficult to promote to those sensitive to Doing Good.

Proof is in the Pudding

All of this is pure speculation and theory.  The proof is in tracking sales of organic foods after this announcement — assuming the information gets into the public consciousness.

Would consumers continue to flock to Whole Foods and other organic food vendors to pay a premium for natural, organic, or local foods — despite the fact that there is no health or nutritional benefit to them?  Under 7DS theory, the answer is no.  The foodies, the vain, and the envious may continue to do so, but the average organic consumer without whom the massive $48B a year natural foods industry could not sustain itself will abandon organic foods in droves if they realize there are no health benefits to buying organic.

At a minimum, organic foods could not command the price premium it does today.

On the other hand, if sales of organics doesn’t change at all, and indeed continues to grow, then either (a) people are far more gluttonous, vain, and envious than I had thought, or (b) people really are motivated by Doing Good — at least for the environment, animals, and so on even at a premium.

As a marketer, this is fascinating.  As a 7DS adherent, I would immediately work with suppliers and manufacturers to drop the price to parity with conventional foods because I believe that consumers are inherently selfish and driven by fundamental motivators.  “It doesn’t cost any more, but it’s better for the environment” or “Same cost, better taste” are far stronger plays, and maintains the Vanity (through self-affirmation as a Green Individual) and Gluttony appeals.  I wonder what the Moral Motivator marketers would do?

-rsh

  • Amanda Blum

    have you ever had organic milk? for whatever reason, it tastes 100% better than regular milk. you could buy 1% fat free organic milk and it tastes like regular milk.

    look- we’re disconnected to our food. whether something is organic, a coopted marketing term, or not isn’t the issue. the issue is that places willing to commit to local farmers, who treat the land and animals on it with greater care for sustainable living and humane treatment are places I’m willing to support. i’m not alone.

    also, this study doesn’t account for certain aspects of life. for instance, we know that all the additives and hormones in food is contributing to girls experiencing puberty sooner in life.

    we know that there is a pollution issue, and that runoff from pesticides contributes to the contamination of groundwater. we know that as the FDA is faced with more and more drugs and foods to consider, less attention must be paid to each and that routinely, we discover that we didn’t study drugs LONG enough to know the true effects.

    In the end, it comes down to this: do you honestly, truly believe that putting chemicals into your body and into the ground DOESN’T have some effect on us?

    • http://www.notorious-rob.com/ Rob Hahn

      Heya Amanda -

      Love your gravatar :)

      So I guess you’re fairly set on the organic food issue, heh. I think you probably want to argue more with the boys and girls who put out the study than with me. If you’ll note, I talked about how the report might be flawed, unreliable, etc.

      But I really wanted to explore the concept of Motivators — and the organic food thing was just an interesting case, that’s all. :) I’m not sure that I have that strong an opinion one way or the other on organic food, locavores, runoffs, or chemicals. Hell, I put enough chemicals in my body (caffeine, taurine, nicotine, lotsa-ines) as is. :)

      So what do you think? Sales of organic foods up/down/steady?

      -rsh

  • Amanda Blum

    have you ever had organic milk? for whatever reason, it tastes 100% better than regular milk. you could buy 1% fat free organic milk and it tastes like regular milk.

    look- we’re disconnected to our food. whether something is organic, a coopted marketing term, or not isn’t the issue. the issue is that places willing to commit to local farmers, who treat the land and animals on it with greater care for sustainable living and humane treatment are places I’m willing to support. i’m not alone.

    also, this study doesn’t account for certain aspects of life. for instance, we know that all the additives and hormones in food is contributing to girls experiencing puberty sooner in life.

    we know that there is a pollution issue, and that runoff from pesticides contributes to the contamination of groundwater. we know that as the FDA is faced with more and more drugs and foods to consider, less attention must be paid to each and that routinely, we discover that we didn’t study drugs LONG enough to know the true effects.

    In the end, it comes down to this: do you honestly, truly believe that putting chemicals into your body and into the ground DOESN’T have some effect on us?

    • http://www.notorious-rob.com Rob Hahn

      Heya Amanda -

      Love your gravatar :)

      So I guess you’re fairly set on the organic food issue, heh. I think you probably want to argue more with the boys and girls who put out the study than with me. If you’ll note, I talked about how the report might be flawed, unreliable, etc.

      But I really wanted to explore the concept of Motivators — and the organic food thing was just an interesting case, that’s all. :) I’m not sure that I have that strong an opinion one way or the other on organic food, locavores, runoffs, or chemicals. Hell, I put enough chemicals in my body (caffeine, taurine, nicotine, lotsa-ines) as is. :)

      So what do you think? Sales of organic foods up/down/steady?

      -rsh

  • Elaine Hanson

    “The pesticides and fertilizers and all that have zero impact on your health.”
    Did the study specifically state that, or was it confined to the nutritional value/content (i.e. vitamins, minerals, essential acids, etc.)? Nutritional value is a different subject from the subject of the effects of the external elements used in the farming of non-organic foods. The effects of fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals on the body as well as the environment are what concern me.

  • Elaine Hanson

    “The pesticides and fertilizers and all that have zero impact on your health.”
    Did the study specifically state that, or was it confined to the nutritional value/content (i.e. vitamins, minerals, essential acids, etc.)? Nutritional value is a different subject from the subject of the effects of the external elements used in the farming of non-organic foods. The effects of fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals on the body as well as the environment are what concern me.

  • http://www.smithadams.com/ Nithi Vivatrat

    Rob, fascinating analysis as always.

    Personally, I do not expect that review (that’s what it was — a review of published scientific literature, not a study itself) will hold up as a new milestone in scientific discovery. View this Washington Post article on the difficulties of even agreeing what “organic” is. But, as you said, that wasn’t the point of your post…

    More to your point — another case with which to explore the Moral Motivator theory is the Toyota Prius. Sales in the first 6 months of 2009 are down 39% from the same period in 2008 (http://online.wsj.com/mdc/public/page/2_3022-autosales.html). This drop is even a little more than the car market overall (excluding mid-size and large SUVs). To me, that means that Prius sales were largely driven by the high gas prices in the first half of last year (Greed, maybe a little Fear) — as gas prices dropped, so did Prius sales. If the Moral Motivator theory was the driving factor, you would expect Prius sales to continue strong (it’s not like concerns about the environment or our dependence on foreign oil have abated).

    I would expect Prius sales to increase in the latter half of this year because (1) gas prices are creeping back up, and (2) the newly-available 2010 Prius does 50 MPG (crushing the Honda Insight), which reinforces the Greed play (and perhaps a little Vanity).

    Frankly, I did not expect the data to bear out this conclusion. I originally expected the Moral Motivator Theory (and cool gadget appeal) to work for the Prius here, especially the type of marketing Toyota does for this car. I was surprised when I saw the data show such a significant drop in Prius sales. But to Rob’s point, Moral Motivator and gadget-happy consumers (come on, you can get the Prius with solar panels to power the AC!) make up only a small slice of the market.

  • http://www.smithadams.com Nithi Vivatrat

    Rob, fascinating analysis as always.

    Personally, I do not expect that review (that’s what it was — a review of published scientific literature, not a study itself) will hold up as a new milestone in scientific discovery. View this Washington Post article on the difficulties of even agreeing what “organic” is. But, as you said, that wasn’t the point of your post…

    More to your point — another case with which to explore the Moral Motivator theory is the Toyota Prius. Sales in the first 6 months of 2009 are down 39% from the same period in 2008 (http://online.wsj.com/mdc/public/page/2_3022-autosales.html). This drop is even a little more than the car market overall (excluding mid-size and large SUVs). To me, that means that Prius sales were largely driven by the high gas prices in the first half of last year (Greed, maybe a little Fear) — as gas prices dropped, so did Prius sales. If the Moral Motivator theory was the driving factor, you would expect Prius sales to continue strong (it’s not like concerns about the environment or our dependence on foreign oil have abated).

    I would expect Prius sales to increase in the latter half of this year because (1) gas prices are creeping back up, and (2) the newly-available 2010 Prius does 50 MPG (crushing the Honda Insight), which reinforces the Greed play (and perhaps a little Vanity).

    Frankly, I did not expect the data to bear out this conclusion. I originally expected the Moral Motivator Theory (and cool gadget appeal) to work for the Prius here, especially the type of marketing Toyota does for this car. I was surprised when I saw the data show such a significant drop in Prius sales. But to Rob’s point, Moral Motivator and gadget-happy consumers (come on, you can get the Prius with solar panels to power the AC!) make up only a small slice of the market.