Read this essay to learn about the genetically modified foods: it’s marketing fallacies, consumer analysis and biotechnology balance!
Consumer’s attitudes toward biotechnology are divided. A recent study showed that 31% favor biotechnology, 18% oppose it, 26% have mixed feelings, and 26% neither know nor care. Even within each of these groups, their opinions are as diverse as the people expressing them.
The differential acceptance of genetically modified products among consumers can be attributed to the different ways in which they process information about biotechnology and related products. Some people carefully weigh potential benefits more heavily than risks. Others form their biotechnology attitudes solely based on “sound bites” they hear on TV or at work.
Regardless of what attitude a person has toward biotechnology, there are two general ways or routes in which they are persuaded and their attitudes formed: A central route to persuasion and a peripheral route to persuasion. When a person is motivated to understand an issue, when they have the ability to understand the issue, and when they have the opportunity to do so, their attitude will be formed through a central route of attitude formation.
If, however, a consumer is not motivated to understand the issue, or if they do not have the technical or cognitive ability, or the opportunity to think about it, any message they hear will be peripherally processed. It is important to understand how central and peripheral processing influences attitudes before assessing the effectiveness of marketing and education efforts. Figure 1 illustrates the two different routes of forming attitudes towards biotechnology and some of the factors that influence the resulting attitudes along the two paths.
Recent studies have shown that consumers generally view genetic engineering technology as a risky process. However, if the genetically modified products offer benefits that traditional products cannot offer, perceived benefits outweigh the perceived risks related to genetic engineering technology.
When consumers have little motivation to process biotechnology information, or little ability to understand it, or no time to digest such information, their opinions will be influenced by the peripheral route to persuasion. Sometimes this happens simply because the information is either too detailed, or because it is too general to integrate into a belief system.
In other words, it is either too complex or too general. For instance, while risks from microbiological hazards are reported in quantitative terms (i.e., number of occurrences and percentage increase or decrease), risks from food applications are generally stated using unqualified terms such as “bad” and “thus should be avoided”.
This lack of access to information combined with lack of ability to process complex biotechnology information is likely to lead most consumers to engage in more heuristic peripheral processing when forming attitudes toward biotechnology. When the peripheral route is activated, the focus is not on message arguments but non- message cues, such as public opinion, sound bites, emotions generated by advertising, labeling, or the credibility of spokespeople or endorsers.
This general notion that people can be aware of an issue without having specific knowledge of it is well- supported. Sheehy, Legault, and Ireland reported that consumers, even highly educated ones, had little or no knowledge of biotechnology. However, their awareness of biotechnology, defined as “having heard of the term,” was substantially high.
This high awareness/low knowledge scenario is particularly common with biotechnology (particularly genetic engineering) because it is new, complex, and not evident to the casual observer. Therefore, consumers can be aware of a biotechnology application while making no associations between it and the genetic engineering process that created the novel characteristics.
Regardless of one’s position, effectively educating consumers about the benefits and risks of biotechnology, necessitates having the proper assumptions about how consumers learn. To date, both opponents and proponents of biotechnology are operating under assumptions about consumers that limit the effectiveness in communicating their message to the public. To be more effective, each of these assumptions must be revised.
Proponent Fallacy 1. The Biotechnology Issue will “Blow Over”:
Should the earlier metaphor of biotechnology being the Model T of the 21st century proves right, it will only be because it stays on the road long enough to outlast resistance. Some highly visible companies have bowed to biotech pressures to source select non-GMO food.
A content analysis of stories about biotechnology has shown a balanced reporting of the topic over the past 10 years. Yet, the earlier years tended to be more positive than the later years. The common hope that this is a topic that will “blow over” was a fatal error made by the British. In 1994, public sentiment toward biotechnology was neutral if not moderately positive.
The industry, therefore, took no real efforts to build public support or enthusiasm for biotechnology because attitudes toward it were improving each and every day. Attitudes were favorable, but neither fully formed nor stable. As a result, when “mad cow disease” became an issue, the industry had not generated the appropriate level of education and support needed to keep the issue in perspective and to keep biotechnology moving forward.
This is true with the United States. Perhaps sentiments of the non-vocal majority are moving ahead at a pace that would indicate this whole issue will blow over. The concern, however, is that we are only one “mad cow disease” episode away from losing the biotechnological ground that’s been gained.
Because of the highly sensitive nature of this issue, it is critical to “shore up” an understanding of biotechnology and attitudes toward it so that an uncontrollable or unrelated event would not unnecessarily cause a fatal overreaction. Current negative public opinion about the use of biotechnology, especially in food industry, is largely due to the uncertainty that stems from lack of information by the public. In addition, biotechnology rapid advancement and some of the current safety issues may become non-issues.
In the case that current negative public reaction to the use of biotechnology is temporary, as was the cases for other innovative technologies such as electricity and computers, marketing strategies should focus on counteracting public misperceptions and educating consumers about the benefits of biotechnology. The main task is to accelerate consumer acceptance through the use of more effective persuasion strategies.
Conversely, controversy over safety and ethical issues involved in the use of biotechnology may be a persistent problem and continue to haunt all parties involved even after the majority of the consumers have adopted the products. Adaptation in living organisms and their change is neither completely predictable nor completely controllable. Therefore, in the long run, the biotechnology industry and researchers as well as the government should try to safeguard potential hazards.
First, objective measures of potential risks of hazards involved in biotechnology and biotechnology products must be developed. Without such measures, it will be impossible to convince consumers of the safety of biotechnology. Secondly, legal and self-regulatory protection devices must be strictly reinforced by government and industry.
Lastly, and the most importantly, codes of ethics that guards against the potential misuse of biotechnology must be established. Although some groups have issued such codes, candid acknowledgement of the potential hazards of the technology and sincere concerns for human well-being by researchers and the marketers of biotechnology and its products are required to safeguard potential hazards.
Proponent Fallacy 2. Science Sells and Fear Fails:
Consider the case when a person’s attitudes have been formed through the peripheral route to persuasion. With relatively low awareness and knowledge of biotechnology along with no established measures of benefits and risks involved in biotechnology applications, his or her biotechnological attitudes will be susceptible to the influence of other people’s opinions and reactions and peripheral events.
To this person, careful scientific reports and expertly articulated third party testimonials will have little if any direct impact. Indeed, even a judicious FDA endorsement might have little impact compared to a sound bite or to the negative portrayal of genetic engineering applications in a movie.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of how low involvement sells is in looking at how social and ethical taboos play a great role in generating public concerns about biotechnology applications. Widespread negativism related to biotechnology has also been fostered by objections raised by some religious groups and environmentalist organisations. Animal rights activists protest biotechnology on the ground that many genetically modified animals suffer vulnerability to specific diseases as the result of such modifications.
Religious groups oppose the use of biotechnology on the ground that experimenting with lives is like “playing God.” These religious and ethical concerns are growing rapidly with the possibility that further advances in gene technology may lead to tampering of human genes in such ways as cloning and gene selection. These groups oppose the use of biotechnology on the bases of social, ethical and religious grounds and provide the public with bases to form an opinion without sufficient scientific knowledge to evaluate the benefits and risks objectively.
The fallacy is that if consumers are given the facts, they will come to the right conclusions. This fallacies takes a “consumers as Computational Machines” approach to understanding consumers. When forming attitudes and judgements about issues, such as biotechnology, basic human tendencies keep consumers from behaving exactly the way the computer programme says they should operate.
Some people weigh certain information as more important than other types of information. That is, a well- to-do vegetarian might believes cost savings are less important than how an animal is cared for. A second person concerned with world hunger might focus more on how biotechnology increases the world food supply and slows land commercialisation. A third person might focus on comparing organic gardens of yesteryear to the unknown issues of tomorrow. What is happening is that consumers form their attitudes in different ways of how one combines the information they are objectively given.
Consumers differ significantly in terms of their prior knowledge about biotechnology, current biases toward biotechnology, and personality characteristics. These differences will lead to differences in information processing styles for biotechnology information.
It is, therefore, important to develop customised strategies dissemination of biotechnology information tailored to the target audiences. Classification of consumers into several categories based upon multiple variables, such as prior knowledge, information processing style, and current biases toward biotechnology, would provide a sound basis for developing more effective strategies.
Proponent Fallacy 3. Biotechnology is an Industry Association Issue:
Biotechnology is not an industry association issue. Biotechnology is a branding issue. It is providing a clear, systematic, vivid, focused message that is potentially important to consumers. In the branding biotechnology war, it is clear who has the upper hand. The powerful visuals that are associated with names such as “Franken Foods” and “Super Weeds” leave little wonder why the public is able to latch on to such bumper-sticker philosophies of skeptics and be moved.
It is unlikely that trade associations and scientific organisations, and the government can effectively brand biotechnology in a way that leaves it standing clear in a consumer’s mind. History indicates the majority of efforts by trade associations, scientific organisations and the government in this regard has not been as effective as hoped for or as claimed.
Even the most notable examples (recall the “Got Milk” campaign), won awards, but reportedly contributed little to sales increases among nonusers. If a company is to compete with the “spin” that opponents of biotechnology create, they need to realise that branding biotechnology is something that deserves some of their best marketing minds. It is not something to be outsourced and trusted to a more risk-aversive counterpart.
In terms of trustworthiness, consumer organisations, environmental groups, and biology researchers are generally seen as the most reliable information sources, while the biotechnology industry was the least trusted source. Mistra et al. asked respondents to express the extent of their confidence in comments on food safety issues by different interest groups.
The most trusted group consisted of university scientists, followed by independent laboratories and consumer groups. When looking at how to provide communication, it must be realised that the important issue is likely to the least effective less unless supported by consumer groups.
Proponent Fallacy 4. Good for Medicine Means Good for Food:
Just because consumers accept biotechnology for medicines, this does not mean they will as readily do it for foods. Generally, consumers are more accepting of genetic engineering and biotechnology related to medicine than that related to food production.
These differences may indicate that consumers weigh the perceived benefits and risks differently for genetic engineering depending upon the target of application. Prospect theory provides a possible theoretical framework to understand the differential perception and differential weighting of benefits and risks across application domains. This can be explained by the way the situation is framed – or perceived – by consumers.
People show a risk-taking tendency when the outcome is framed as reduction of a loss, while becoming risk-aversive when the outcome is framed as a gain. In general, biotechnology applications in the medical domain are framed as losses. For example, the benefit of a new medicine developed with biotechnology is generally framed as the improved health condition of an already ill patient.
Thus, it is framed as a reduction of losses. The benefit of a food product produced with biotechnology, however, is framed as improved nutrition and quality for a product that already has satisfactory quality and nutrition from a consumer’s point of view, and, thus is framed as an increase in gains.
Therefore, consumers are willing to take risks that will reduce a loss, but one loss willing to take risk for something that is classified as a benefit. If the differences in acceptance of biotechnology across application domains are due to differences in how the benefits and risks are framed as proposed by prospect theory, consumer acceptance of food related biotechnology may be improved by framing the benefits in terms of reduction of potential dietary hazards instead of framing them in terms of enhanced nutrition or quality.
Earlier, it was pointed out that confusion regarding criterion for weighing or evaluating benefits and risks involved in biotechnology may lead to deferral of decisions, or the total rejection of biotechnology. Therefore, it is critical to provide consumers with clear information for evaluating biotechnology and biotechnology products. The following is a listing of important consumer education points.
Improving human health conditions through development of better medicines and better food production must take the top priority. The destructive effects of chemical pesticides and wastes are far more devastating to the ecological balance than those of genetically modified living organisms. Ethical concerns regarding the possible misuses of biotechnology should not interfere with the potentially beneficial use of biotechnology as a whole. Biotechnology products on the market have passed safety requirements and can be trusted.
Consumer Analysis and Biotechnology Balance:
On the consumer behaviour related to biotechnology provides several important insights into understanding the consumer acceptance process of biotechnology and its applications. The differences in prior knowledge about biotechnology and information processing styles among consumers suggest that communication strategies to disseminate biotechnology information and educate consumers should take a stepwise approach. In general, acceptance of biotechnology is a stepwise process.
First consumers need to accept the processes of biotechnology, and only after that can they accept specific products themselves. Therefore, having information about and confidence in biotechnology is a necessary condition for acceptance of biotechnology products.
To address this, a hierarchical model of communication strategy is proposed. It will be necessary to disseminate general information such as what biotechnology is and what would be affected by it as the first step of the process. Consumers must have some basic level of knowledge about biotechnology in order to process more specific and detailed information. Next, information about biotechnology used by the specific industries can be understood.
Once the technology or process itself is understood and accepted by consumers, then information about benefits and risks involved with the products can be more effectively conveyed. This way, consumers will be able to develop knowledge basis on which they can make educated decisions regarding specific biotechnology products. Figure 2 illustrates how the hierarchy of communication objectives can be structured in relation to the level of consumers’ biotechnology knowledge.
Clearly, consumers have predisposed attitudes towards particular terminology such as “genetic engineering.” Regardless of the reasons behind these attitudes, it is important to accommodate the unease invoked by the terminology. Therefore, manufacturers should seek to avoid the use of potentially negative terms either through omission or the use of alternate terminology.
It has also been noted that consumers generally view product labeling as an important source of information when developing attitudes toward biotechnology products. Therefore, labeling and product packaging should reflect the positive aspects of the industry and methodology involved in production.
When possible, consumer advocacy organisations and research institutions should be utilised as endorsers for the products or technology as they are viewed as most trustworthy. In the meantime, it will be important to provide consumers a sense of control over their choices.
The use of labeling to provide biotechnology information regarding the production of the products can be important. Labeling of biotechnology products will not only serve an informational function but also serve as a safety signal and reduces concerns about being able to choose wanted products. Biotechnology communication strategies should provide consumers with criteria for evaluating biotechnology products. Consumers will be more comfortable and confident in accepting biotechnology as their confusion about what and how to choose diminishes.
Biotechnology is advancing into the future and some of the current safety issues may become non-issues. However, current public concerns are grounded on what has happened with past misuses of biotechnology. Concerns may partly be due to the fact that living organisms are adaptive and their change is not completely predictable and/or controllable.
Therefore, in the long run, the biotechnology industry and researchers as well as the government should try to safeguard potential hazards. First, objective measures of potential risks of hazards involved in biotechnology and biotechnology products must be developed. Without such measures, it will be impossible to convince consumers of biotechnology safety.
Secondly, some legal and self- regulatory protection devices must be put in place by the government and industry. Lastly, and the most importantly, a code of ethics that guards against the potential misuse of biotechnology must be established and adopted by those who participate in the field of biotechnology.
Generally consumers perceive biotechnology information provided by the industry to be the least credible and are most distrustful of an industry regulated safety system. The biotechnology industry is the major provider of biotechnology products that consumers make choices about.
Therefore, it is critical for the industry to earn consumers’ trust. A self-regulatory effort by the industry may help gain consumer confidence. The biotechnology industry should strive to develop objective measures for risks and benefits of products and establish self-regulated safety measures of the processes used.
Disclosing information on the product labels is also important since it provides consumers control over their choices. Consumers are ill equipped with knowledge, they still desire control in choosing what they eat. The use of product labeling to provide information regarding the biotechnology used to produce the products can be important. Labeling of biotechnology products will not only serve an informational function but also serve as a safety signal and reduces concerns about choice.
The Role of Government as the Safeguard. Despite some doubt regarding the efficiency of government, many focus groups and surveys indicate that consumers believe the government should play an important role in providing regulation and safety protection with respect to biotechnology.
These provisions and assurances of safety by the government will contribute to eliminating some of the concerns consumers hold about biotechnology. The government should take the responsibility of setting the direction and pace of development to prevent questionable or premature application of biotechnology. University and Research Institutions.
Universities and other research institutions account for the majority of genetic engineering and biotechnology research and development. Therefore, they are well positioned to play a safety-assurance role as well as provide up to date information on biotechnology advances and applications.
While industry sponsorship raises some concerns, the public views these institutions as the most credible and trustworthy source of biotechnology information. Therefore, a more active effort to establish and maintain integrity and impartiality of research by these institutions is important.
When contemplating product positioning in the market as a whole and at the individual store level, marketers should seek to align products with their non- biotech counterparts. This avoids the assignment of a stigma upon the products as being “fake” or “synthetic.”
However, this is not as important when targeting biotechnology-savvy markets wherein differentiation techniques may even work as an advantage.
Additionally, efforts should be made to “tie-in” the products with brands and images that are highly regarded and give the impression of being natural. Through the use of brand equity leveraging, innovative promotion, product pairing, etc., the products can achieve an air of familiarity, quality, and conventionality..
Consumers acquire biotechnology information from various sources such as government publications, consumer organisations, research institutes, and the media. Because consumers perceive that there are conflicts among the various information sources and this perception can cause unnecessary confusion leading to rejection or deferral of acceptance of biotechnology products. An integrative and coordinated communication effort by the multiple information sources is essential in increasing consumer acceptance.
Consumers believe that government should play an important role in providing regulation and safety protection with respect to biotechnology. These provisions and assurances of safety by the government will contribute to eliminating some of the negative delusions consumers hold about biotechnology.
Universities and other research institutions account for the majority of genetic engineering and biotechnology research and development. Therefore, they are well positioned to play a safety assurance role as well as provide up to date information on biotechnology advances and applications.
While industry sponsorship raises some concerns, the public believes in impartiality of these institutions. Universities and research institutions are major providers of biotechnology advances. The biotechnology industry is the major provider of biotechnology products that consumers make choices.
It is critical for the biotechnology industry to earn consumers’ trust by implementing self- regulatory efforts. Finally, media has long been established as one of the main information sources for consumers, but less as a source of biotechnology information. The effect of mass media in disseminating biotechnology information has been inhibiting (i.e., distributing news about bio- hazards) rather than facilitating.