Food Babe, et al. and the Goliath Effect

Posted on 20 Jan 2018 23:38

Ever since Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" we've had constant examples of "The Goliath Effect," referring to the biblical legend of David and Goliath.

The term was originally coined by Gary Alan Fine who pointed out that more [American] urban legends than can be attributed to chance refer to the largest and most dominant corporations. 1

In fact, many food-related urban legends that at first refer to a less dominant product or company will be transferred to dominant brand or company in that market as the story is passed along.

You could describe what FoodBabe (Vani Deva Hari) and others like her do in a very simple way: They create urban legends. In doing so, they take advantage of the Goliath Effect. If you want an urban legend to disseminate and be accepted as quickly and widely as possible, you don't attack small entities or companies, you attack those with the biggest market share.

If we look at urban legends about foods attached to specific types of companies or products, we'll see that many more of them involve the largest corporations. There are more urban legends about McDonald's, for example than Burger King, and more about Coke than Pepsi.

Author Gary Alan Fine classified these legends into three types 1:

  • The Evil Corporation
  • The Deceptive Corporation
  • The Careless Corporation.

Food Babe tends to rely mostly on "The Deceptive Corporation" in her crusades but any one or combination of the above could be just as effective. Since suspicion of big business is more or less woven into our culture, it only takes a spark to start a major blaze that will have repercussions for years.


Does the Goliath Effect Create Marketing Opportunities?

The idea that online food crusaders, fear mongers, and opportunists like Vani Hari actually make large food companies "shake in their boots" is more than a bit naive, it verges on the preposterous. Food companies are on the lookout for marketing opportunities. These opportunities can be found in the "gluten-free" craze, for example. Sundry food packaging labels declare gluten-free in bold lettering even though the product never contained any gluten. The same can be said of many other label claims, which should be, much of the time, be thought of as label decoration.

However, not all these opportunities, and the claims they lead to are equal. Some of them, such as gluten-free, can be quite dangerous. For example, let us suppose that a small food company has a product which, as far as the company knows, contains no gluten. There is no wheat or other gluten-containing grains in the product. So, the company proudly proclaims its product gluten-free. A person with celiac happily consumes the product thinking it contains no gluten, only to become very ill. It turns out that somewhere in the ingredient-chain is a gluten-containing ingredient. It is only a very small amount, but for the right person, this small amount is a huge problem.

A large company would, hopefully, understand the difference between a faddish health craze like "gluten free" and the absolutely vital dietary restrictions of celiac sufferers. But in other cases, when the proposed ill-health effects of an ingredient are trumped up or outright imaginary, the company may seize upon an opportunity to use this this fear to market its product.

Here is what you need to understand, most of the time, when a large food company removes an ingredient or class of ingredients from a product in response to the efforts of someone like Food Babe, they can and will quietly slip the ingredient(s) back in once everyone's attention has been diverted to the next crusade. To a savvy advertiser, "giving in" to such outcry is nothing of the sort. It is just a way to sell more product to gullible consumers.

During the 1980's, the Coca-Cola company introduced an ill-fated product called New Coke. I remember it as if it were yesterday since I was actually working as a stocker in a grocery store, responsible for re-filling the shelves with Coke and other soft-drinks. This product, the company claimed, was a new and improved version of the classic Coca-Cola and was meant to replace it permanently. The response was instant. Coca-Cola drinkers hated New Coke. Shortly, Coca-Cola Classic appeard on shelves for those who just had to have the original. And shortly after that, New Coke faded quietly away. Coca-Cola Classic started flying off the shelves.

Many people called this a conspiracy. They claimed that the Coca-Cola company planned the whole thing from the start. According to this theory, the company purposely screwed up New Coke and marketed it for no other reason than to create more nostalgia and demand for the old Coke. The whole episode resulted in just that, but the company always maintained, tongue-n-cheek, that people were giving it too much credit. We aren't that clever, they said. Whatever happened, it seemed to be more of a marketing success than a failure, even though many went on to claim an even deeper conspiracy, that the episode was a way of screwing with the original formula and cheapening it without people realizing it. These folks claimed that Coca-Cola Classic did not taste the same as original Coke either! There were many other theories, of course, such as the idea that New Coke, with its sweeter formula, was meant to appeal to Pepsi drinkers, which is probably closer to the truth. The whole idea was to align itself with the the 'newer' brand which marketed on its taste rather than its history. Then Coca-Cola president and COO, Donald Keough, said at the time 'Some critics will say Coca-Cola made a marketing mistake, some cynics will say that we planned the whole thing. The truth is we are not that dumb, and we are not that smart.' To translate: 'We did not make a mistake AND we did not plan the whole thing.' Hmmm…

The Coca-Cola Company was not responding to any sort of consumer demand when they introduced New Coke, but such a demand, even from a small group, can create just the sort of marketing opportunity that the conspiracy theorists claim Coke was creating.

Let's look at artificial colors. Once you learn about how and why artificial colors are used in foods, you will begin to understand how the public's desire for healthy and "natural" food is at odds with its demand for consistency. As well, our perception of quality, and of healthfulness, is tied up with the consistency and brightness of a food products colors. The fact is, you might avoid drinking a fruit juice you expected to be red if it had a dull brown color. You would associate this dull hue with something that had gone bad or was of low quality even if it was the real result of pressing the juice out the fruit.

In 2015, because of the concerted efforts of Food Babe and her ilk, General Mills, pledged to remove artificial colors from its cereals. The first victim, in 2016, was the very colorful and sugary cereal Trix. In place of the bright colors in the original cereal, the company used natural colors from vegetables like purple carrots and radishes. The new colors, instead of being bright and vivid, were dull. What's more, once in milk, the colors became brown and even duller. As you may have learned from the link I shared above, one of the most important aspects of a color ingredient is stability. These new colors were not stable at all.

Trix customers complained loudly about these awful new colors on social media, and in September 2017 the company "heard their voice" and brought back the original colors.

I am not in the business of saying I told you so, especially since I didn't tell you. But, when the new colors were introduced, I privately predicted the old colors would be back within a year. This is because I thought the company was simply taking advantage of the outrage over artificial colors to create a bit of appreciation for Trix. I could be completely wrong and may be engaging in a bit of conspiracy-theorizing myself. But, you see, I have a hard time believing that the formulists at General Mills didn't already know what the results of trying to use this new natural, quite dull and unstable color ingredients in the cereal. I also have a hard time believing that the company did not expect just the sort of response its customers demonstrated. I could be wrong, but one thing I do know is that sometimes you have to beat consumers of the head with the reality of what they say that want. Nobody wants brown Trix.

See also How do We Know What Food Chemicals are Dangerous?

1. Fine, Gary Alan. Manufacturing Tales: Sex and Money in Contemporary Legends. Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1994.
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