Bacon is the new black

The epidemiologist Kurt Straif has published his latest study for the World Health Organization (WHO): about 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide can be attributed to diets high in processed meat. The study includes two key takeaways for social marketing:

-         No safe level of consumption has been identified.

-         Let the public decide who to trust, the industry or the study.

The processed meat industry is a transparent player. With global revenues of about $200 billion, it generates trust: ‘cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods’, ‘the WHO report is biased and misleading’, ‘they tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome’, and ‘that’s a small fraction of the 8.2 million deaths caused by cancer every year’ (The North American Meat Institute).

Retailers are more subtle: ‘If anything causes cancer, it’s up to people to listen to what science says and decide on their own. We aren’t going to force anybody to eat bacon (…) but I would die if I couldn’t eat bacon. It’s so delicious!” (Chris Chriswell, owner of Swine, a NYC restaurant whose motto is ‘Bacon is the new black’).

Consumers have reacted surprisingly, in a way that is incomprehensible for Straif: ‘Nutritional McCarthyism’ (quip from a paleo-diet fan); ‘this study sucks’ (in-depth analysis from a troll); ‘Meat has been determined to cause cancer in Europe… I’m glad I’m in Kansas!’ (cute tweet from another critic).

Marketing uses psychology to explain why the WHO has lost: cognitive dissonance, the mental discomfort experienced by consumers who hold two or more contradictory beliefs or are confronted by new information that sets their taste for hotdogs and sausages against an 18% increase in their probability of cancer.

And when consumers experience inconsistency, it is psychologically uncomfortable. They are motivated to reduce this dissonance and avoid information that is likely to increase it. Straif should have used a social marketing strategy: increase the value of his belief and information. Because, to quote a recent dining companion at my favourite restaurant, ‘This time, they’ve crossed the line.”

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