Playing the "Natural" Card: Shady Marketing Undermines both Science and Corporate Responsibility

June 2003

by Jon Entine

In Bernard Malamud's The Natural, the fictional Roy Hobbs, a baseball player born with rare and wondrous gifts, is robbed of his prime playing years by a youthful indiscretion. But he perseveres, re-enters the game at an age when most players are considering retirement and becomes an instant hero. It's a seductive message in part because it plays on the notion of "natural" - a belief that there is an uncorrupted state that, if restored and honoured, can transform failure into success and evil into good.

Heavens to Jean Jacques Rousseau! This Eden has an odd grip on the New Age strain of corporate social responsibility, and it's not a good thing. One hot movement known as "natural capitalism" mixes conventional accountability standards with gloppy, Rousseauian romantic rhetoric. Its acolytes, who have started a consulting service known as The Natural Step, attack corporate evildoers for "systematically substituting certain persistent and unnatural compounds with ones that are normally abundant or break down more easily in nature."

It's certainly welcome to encourage oversight of natural resources, but a blanket insinuation that nature's products are always benign or better than "unnatural compounds" is pure hokum. For example, many organic products supporters maintain that "natural" fruits and foods are healthier than conventionally grown products. "It doesn't matter what's true, it matters what consumers think," said Chuck Marcy, CEO of Horizon Organic Dairy at an industry forum this past January. Consumers buy organic "because they think it's healthier, safer or more nutritious".

As Horizon well knows, there is no scientific evidence to support this marketing fiction, as hundreds of independent evaluations by such groups as the Organic Farming Research Foundation and Consumer Reports have demonstrated. Zealots also ignore the reality that nature can be far deadlier than man - the natural bacteria in manure used as fertiliser in organic produce has led to far more deaths and sicknesses (think Odwalla) than "unnatural" chemical fertilisers.

Marketing products as "natural" with all that this Edenistic word suggests has long since become mainstream, which means it's lost any normative value it might once have had. That makes it all the more unseemly to see the buzzword being used by companies that have been seen as corporate responsibility good guys. Often the biggest exploiters peddle commodity products like ice cream, toothpaste and cosmetics at outrageous prices by attaching the "natural" label. For example, The Body Shop promotes its beauty notions as "natural" and "inspired by nature". In fact, its artificially coloured and chemically scented cosmetics and petrochemical-derived preservatives are the antithesis of natural. On the other hand, the base ingredients of its lotions are often natural - water and cheap almond oil.

While in my view The Body Shop directly misrepresents the naturalness of its products, Johnson & Johnson, makers of sucralose, an artificial sweetener sold as Splenda, benefits from sleight-of-hand marketing. J&J banks on the fact that as a well-regarded health care company, anything it markets will be received as healthy. Its advertising tag line deftly brags, "It's made from sugar so its tastes like sugar." Splenda recently launched a series of TV ads that play on the misconceptions about its wholesomeness. "What are little girls made of?" asks one 30 second spot. "Splenda and spice and everything nice." On its website it claims that, "As a table sweetener, it combines the ingredient form of SPLENDAź Brand Sweetener with other natural food ingredients."

Yet despite its origins as sugar, sucralose is no more natural or safer than any other artificial sweetener. After all, petrochemicals are made from naturally produced oil, but that certainly doesn't make them the environmentally preferred energy option. In the case of Splenda, both the synthetic process to make it and the end product are straight from the laboratory.

Equally disturbing, J&J has encouraged perceived misconceptions about Splenda's naturalness to percolate among natural devotees, the fast growing sector in the food industry. "We had the Net buzz and chat-room stuff going," says Anne Rewey, Splenda marketing director for McNeil, J&J's Pennsylvania-based chemical division that developed the product. A surf of the Internet underscores the success of J&J's viral marketing campaign. "I went to the dietician at the local clinic today from the diabetic education department," posted "Jdlar" on a diabetes Web discussion group. "And, in her opinion, she said something along the lines that Splenda is more natural than the chemicals like aspartame. She said it's made from an extract from sugar." Alternative health and natural product discussion groups are filled with such nonsense.

Splenda's unwarranted reputation as a natural product understandably riles rivals. "Look at the chemical structure of the compounds," notes Ted Ziemann, president of the Health & Food Technologies division of Cargill, the Minnesota-based commodities giant that is beginning to market its own non-sugar sweeteners.

Such clever marketing has taken in some consumer groups that have attacked other artificial sweeteners, such as saccharin (Sweet 'N Low), acesulfame-k (Sunette, Sweet One) and aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet) for being chemicals, although they have been extensively tested and found safe. The public misconception about Splenda's naturalness has helped propel it past Equal to capture 30 percent of the lucrative tabletop sweetener market.

None of this is meant to imply that there is anything unsafe about Splenda. Although it hasn't been tested as extensively as its rivals, results so far indicate that - like its competitors - it's safe.

So what is the lesson here? Many businesses including those purporting to be socially responsible have learned that hyping fears of chemicals and using shifty advertising can pay off. This "natural" nonsense has become an amazingly potent hot-button way to court ageing baby boomer consumers and their families. It's also fraudulent. Demagoguing science, even when done in the velvet glove way of a Johnson & Johnson, will certainly sell your product, but at the long term cost to society, which constantly wrestles with junk science and consumer hysteria.

Malamud's baseball classic is an intoxicating tale of myth and magic. Invoking the "natural" may be great grist for novels and jabbering about sustainability but it's no way to run a business, especially one aspiring to corporate responsibility.

Jon Entine is scholar-in-residence at Miami University (Ohio) and adjunct fellow with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Jon is also an award-winning freelance journalist.

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