Awareness of food product ingredients has been growing in consumers for years now. What started with nutrition labels, which helped people determine the amount of fat, salt, or sugar in a product, has expanded to the point that conscious consumers demand information about the quality and provenance of their food. A rejection of the use of antibiotics, hormones, genetically modified organisms, and artificial colors and preservatives has consumers seeking more natural alternatives, and they’re willing to pay a premium for peace of mind.
The problem, of course, is that the food industry is well aware that people seek out–and pay more for–natural alternatives, and is happy to give them what they want. Or at least the appearance of what they want. Since the claim of being “natural” is not regulated by the FDA, many products that are anything but can be found bearing the label. “Natural” has become the linguistic equivalent to social-media vocabulary victims “like” and “conversation”–hollow and meaningless.
Only Organic, an organic advocacy group, is taking on this disingenuous wordplay with a new campaign that sheds light on the common and often absurd ways that that food industry hijacks the natural food bandwagon. Created by agency Humanaut, with creative direction from Alex Bogusky, the campaign centers around the office of the False Advertising Industry. In a four-minute online film, a spokesman for the FAI outlines the industry’s many successes in the duping the public into thinking they’re buying honest-to-goodness natural products. “Just put that word natural on there … and maybe a picture of a barn,” says the spokesman, while advocating for The Natural Effect, the industry’s most successful marketing breakthrough. “People will think your product is just as healthy as organic. We pride ourselves on this confusion.”
Since the FDA doesn’t regulate the use of the word natural the way it does organic, which is subject to some rigor, the definition is open to interpretations, says Humanaut founder/chief creative director David Littlejohn. “So really almost anything can be labeled natural or even 100% natural. But being organic means you can’t use growth hormones or antibiotics in meat or dairy products, you can’t use genetically engineered ingredients, you can’t grow crops using toxic pesticides or human sewage. It means a lot.”
The problem arises, of course, when people assume these standards apply to the term natural. “Millions of people are fooled into thinking the word natural means it’s somehow better for them, when it’s likely not,” says Littlejohn.
The case against Naked Juice is a prime example, says Bogusky. After a class action suit challenging the drink’s natural claims, PepsiCo decided to drop the “all natural” verbiage from it’s packaging. “Abuses of the term natural have been going on for quite some time. The case against Naked Juice put more attention on it and the widespread use of GMO ingredients under the banner of ‘natural’ have been bringing the debate to a head,” Bogusky says. “Part of the FDA charter is that labeling should be in line with consumer expectations. And the consumer expectation for what they are getting under the term ‘natural’ has been getting less and less aligned. If you want natural then you might want to consider looking for organic.”
Of course, organic food producers are keen to mark this distinction, since faux natural products siphon off their potential sales, but Bogusky says part of the point of raising awareness about the disconnect between natural claims and the bogus reality is to prompt change. “For the term natural to survive as a meaningful word it needs some tighter definition–either industry wide or perhaps it should be defined by the USDA. There are good companies out there with good products using the term natural but some really bad ones too. That needs to get fixed.”
If this all sounds a little too earnest, the campaign certainly isn’t. While the goal is to inform consumers of the rampant greenwashing of many natural products, the execution is wholly tongue in cheek. Actor Joshua Childs mugs for the camera in his send-up of a corporate bigwig, while revealing that GMOs, antibiotics and synthetic ingredients are all copacetic when it comes to a natural label.
Littlejohn says that the goal was to inform the public and expose the word natural for what it really is. “It’s just marketing speak. But we wanted to do it in a way that would be both entertaining and informative. To give people something they could share with their friends and social network. It was also important for people to understand what the organic seal actually means.”
“We made the campaign fun because people don’t really need any more sanctimonious ‘eat like I do’ stuff out there,” adds Bogusky. “People have already decided they want to eat more naturally. That’s great. So all they need to know now is how to do it and how to avoid being fooled.”