Sunday, May 22, 2016

Guided by Illusions

In key decisions we are guided by shadows and illusions. What feels at the time like a personal choice based on solid evidence can later lose all its meaning when, taking a second look, the evidence is rumor and the real choice was made by commercial interests. When you’re ready to see them, examples of this can be found at every turn. Here are three examples having to do with consumer products in this weekend’s headlines.

  • As I mentioned yesterday, a one-line change in Nutrition Facts labeling can take the illusion of good nutrition away from a whole processed food category. Years ago it was granola bars, previously seen as a healthy food choice, but more accurately understood as a form of candy when their nutritional impact was clearly disclosed. That will soon happen with other food categories as the Nutrition Facts panel shows added sugar. Perhaps it will be 20th-century white bread that falls away when people see it has as much added sugar as a marshmallow. Advertising can create a web of illusions around a processed food category, but the illusions depend on keeping the truth hidden.
  • A story in the Washington Post shows how consumers see sliced apples as more approachable than whole apples. In fact, whole apples are nutritionally better than sliced apples, but of course that is a moot point if the apple goes uneaten. I call this an illusion because anyone with an ordinary table knife can cut a whole apple in half in a couple of seconds, yet this is a potential the average consumer won’t see when looking at a whole apple. In a similar way, sales of whole pineapples went up a few years ago when 20 words of slicing instructions were added to the other side of the bar code tag.
  • The Guardian’s devastating summary of what was likely the last big U.K. court case for cigarettes shows how branding is part of the pattern of cigarette addiction. Evidence reviewed by the court showed that new smokers (average age, 14) aren’t functionally addicted to cigarettes until they’ve chosen a tobacco logo to identify with. This was discovered and documented by the industry itself around 1970. It was the 1960s that saw physicians and professors give up smoking, and big tobacco redesigned its logos as a way to fight back and pull in more adolescent customers. Processed tobacco is all essentially the same regardless of factory, so the logos create the illusion of a distinction that isn’t present in the product. The power of that illusion becomes obvious as soon as you take the logos away, and as that happens in the EU and around the world, it becomes all but impossible for marketing campaigns to snare new cigarette addicts.

These are consumer products but similar illusions can be seen anywhere you look. Many of the “most powerful” corporations in the world own hardly anything in a material sense. The whole world knows the logo, but the inventory is borrowed, the furniture rented, and the biggest asset is “goodwill.” Some of your own most “prized” possessions are ones where your enthusiasm is secondhand, based on the opinions or experiences of your friends, parents, or parents’ friends and never quite corroborated by your own experience. The world is going through a period of disillusionment, in which some of these collective hallucinations are set aside, so it’s not surprising if you start to notice things in your own life that don’t look so solid as they did last year.