Are Food Ads the New Political Ads?

There was a time when food didn’t need advertising. Because people grew it, other people bought it, and they took it home and cooked it up into dinner.

But then food products came along, and you know what products need? Marketing. There is in fact even a Food Marketing Institute, also known as an organization that “advocates on behalf of the food retail industry.” You know what that means: lobbying.

Food advertising is everywhere, but recently it’s taken on a new approach.

There’s the McDonald’s ad poking fun at people who like organic kale, and who eat soy products; there’s the Budweiser commercial taking the piss out of craft beer – “proudly a micro beer” – and then of course, there’s the new milk social media campaign which is all about slapping plant-based milks up side the head, #milktruth as they call it.

All three of these campaigns are developed because the brands (or lobby, in the case of milk) behind them understand that change is afoot in the marketplace. People are eating less meat, and hence, fewer burgers. People are buying more craft beer, and that means less of the industrial stuff. People are switching to plant-based milks, and that means the dairy lobby is pissed.

Food ads and marketing are obviously meant to boost sales, and usually that means highlighting all the great aspects of the food product in question. Juicy burgers, tasty, American-made beer, and good ol’, plain milk that’s chock full of health benefits. These ads all do that, but there’s another thread tying all three of these campaigns together: they are all based on putting their opposers down.

If you are already in the anti-McDonald’s burger camp, McDonald’s knows that they probably aren’t going to convince you to eat a burger. But you know what they can do? Convince the person that’s on the fence about burgers, and isn’t sure if they like veggie burgers or not, and a bit annoyed at all those kale-loving foodies, that eating at McDonald’s isn’t just tasty, it’s a statement. It will allow them to distance themselves from this elitist, burger-hating crowd.

Same goes for Budweiser. They’re not out for the lovers of microbrew, they’re out for the people that “just want to drink a beer.” They want that person to know that it’s ok to just want a regular beer, and they’ll give it to you. A good, honest, American beer. None of that geeky stuff included.

It’s the food version of anti-intellectualism. For example in an image posted on Twitter by Milk Life,  a graphic shows a bottle of milk and a carton of almond milk. Under milk, it says “13 syllables” and under almond milk, “80 syllables,” a reference to the ingredients in milk.

That’s a kind of backwards way of taking a hit at the whole foods industry which often notes the excessive ingredients in certain products. Of course, regardless of whether or not you like drinking almond milk, not every brand of almond milk has that many ingredients in it. Not to mention that real milk shouldn’t have those additives in it to begin with. And have you looked at the ingredient list for chocolate milk lately? This kind of advertising completely oversimplifies the issue (which is of course what good marketing campaigns do), failing to mention all the reasons that make people choose plant-based milks in the first place, factory farms for example.

You know what these ads make me think of? Political ads. Instead of trying to convince potential eaters of all your merits and reasons why you should be elected, you take down your opponent. Hit them hard and where it hurts so that people will vote for you, regardless of whether you have leadership ability or smart policies.

These advertising campaigns are the political ads of the food world, pitting one group against each other.

But if we have one unifying factor, no matter what side of the political spectrum that we’re on, it’s food. Sure, some choose barbecue and some choose bulgur, but at the end of the day we all have to eat on a daily basis, and we all want to live healthy lives. That means that food has the potential to be our common language, not the one that divides us.

If we are going to do anything to combat the efforts of these marketing campaigns, it’s just to make sure that we’re keeping an open, honest dialogue. One that doesn’t push people out, one that doesn’t come off as elitist.

We have to point out all the things that these ads don’t say, because we have to hope that ultimately science and facts will win out over marketing. Because food shouldn’t have to be political. It’s political because the world of agribusiness and industrial food companies have made it so, making real food have to fight for itself against food products.

Originally published on EcoSalon

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