business news in context, analysis with attitude

On the subject of false rumors spread via the Internet, MNB user Jarrett Paschel wrote:

As somebody who spends many hundreds of hours a year interviewing consumers in their kitchens, garages and favorite stores, I can attest to the significant amount of consumer behavior driven by completely irrational, imaginary forces. I sometimes think to myself that if the CMO’s ever saw some of the things I’ve been witness too, they might be tempted to throw in the towel. Rumors of satanic leanings, animal abuse, poisoning animals, donations to political causes, championing slave labor, union busting, etc. are commonplace and emerge spontaneously, the obvious product of irrational fears which reside deep in our collective psyche.

Add to the mix (a) a healthy dose of self-diagnosed (imagined?) food allergies (about 1/4 of the consumers we speak with now claim to be lactose intolerant, a growing percentage of parents report maintaining a gluten-free household out of general health interest, and about 1/3 of the adults we speak with claim the “sulfites in wine” give them headaches) as well as (b) behavior driven by simple mis translation of current facts (“I’ve heard that green tea gives you cancer,” “They say to avoid chocolate because of it’s cancer-causing compounds”) and you might be tempted to think this is a no-win game.

Quite to the contrary, however, I would suggest this isn’t really such a problem after all. Consumer behavior, like all other human behavior, remains irrational and largely unpredictable (the most robust social science models explain 18-20% of the variation, at best). My belief is that because your models are always going to be plagued by irrational behavior, it’s generally best to avoid getting bogged down with such details—in large part because there often is little that can be done. Remember, because these behaviors are by definition irrational they typically don’t respond well to rational interventions (aggressive PR campaigns, blogs, websites, etc.). So rather than becoming alarmed by every internet rumor that surfaces and trying to devise elaborate—and costly—response strategies, I would suggest simply keeping your eye on the larger target.

Besides, given that most of these rumors are themselves driven by irrational fears, it is quite likely that any response may, in fact, only serve to perpetuate the rumors. Remember, the best evidence of conspiracy in Kennedy’s assassination was the Warren Commission’s report which claimed that Oswald acted alone.

We also got an email yesterday from MNB user Don Bechtel commenting on an interesting confluence of stories:

I found it ironic that almost immediately following an article where you indicated some empathy for the problems that firms experience as a result of rumors distributed via the internet, you conclude your Wendy’s clip by initiating your own rumor about Wendy’s replacing a healthy fruit menu item with “half a heifer with cheese and bacon burger.”

It made me wonder how many of these rumors begin in jest vs. a more malicious intent.

Good point.

But we’ve got to be able to draw a line between humor and rumor.

We got a number of emails yesterday in response to our story about planned lawsuits against the soft drink industry.

MNB user Keith Jones wrote:

Where does the snowball stop rolling? We have seen the attempts to attack the fast-food industry for the poor choices of individuals leading to obesity and now this attack on soft drink industries. When will society stop blaming others and start taking on some of their own responsibilities. I am in my mid 40’s and I held off all of the attempts to lure me to be a smoker. I am a diet soft drink consumer. This ‘habit’ is a habit of choice. Unlike cigarettes, most people can walk away from their soft drinks. If we follow this theory, will the next lawsuit be targeted at Starbucks, Maxwell House, Folgers, and any other coffee café or manufacturer?

Another MNB user wrote:

It's a brave person (parent) who wants to challenge a major soft drink company for supplying school permitted vending machines, and then giving their own kids money for the vending machines. If they don't want their kids to have the soft drinks, they should take responsibility and ensure the kid doesn't have soft drink by either educating them, or not giving them the money. I'd also challenge that those same parents have never put a bottle or can of those same drinks in the fridge at home....

MNB user George Taylor wrote:

This lawsuit is a slippery slope that will ultimately lead to a world where the only food/drink kids are allowed in school are vitamins and granola bars - where does this end after soft drinks? Sugary sweet foods and candies are certainly empty calories and that can lead to obesity problems...much of the school lunch menu is empty calories that can lead to obesity - there really is not a logical stopping point in this argument and the ridiculousness of the lawsuit is highlighted by the attorney equating a Coke vending machine with a cigarette vending machine. This is a false dichotomy and I have to think in his heart he knows that. I think Coke in particular has done a lot of honorable things in this space by promoting activity and expanding their beverages into other more healthy categories. Without overstating the obvious, it is clear that the problem of obesity extends well beyond what type of beverages kids are consuming and in my opinion has more to do with inactive, sedentary lifestyles being reinforced throughout a culture that promotes having it all without inconveniences like hard work.

Another member of the MNB community wrote:

Here is just another example of what is wrong with our judicial system. Instead of being a vehicle for deliberation and deliverance of justice, it becomes a clearinghouse of frivolous and ridiculous lawsuits designed to get someone rich.

However, I can't fault attorneys for taking advantage of the system. To solve the root of this problem, the judicial system itself must be repaired to prevent these kinds of lawsuits. To expect our nation's attorneys to exercise self-restraint on this is unrealistic.

Still another MNB user chimed in:

One thing I have learned in this life is that the lawyers have a knack for finding a way to tap someone's pocket. This is another case of file a suit and someone will probably pay rather than fight. What do they get? Most of the money. What does the consumer get? Higher prices to cover the cost of the suit.

And MNB user Guy P. DiCenzo wrote:

You've made a mistake in your analysis of tobacco vs. soft drink're educated, thoughtful, logical and moral...things that have nothing to do with attorneys and juries.

Not to mention a sharp dresser and a hell of a dancer.

Finally, we got an interesting note from someone who obviously read yesterday’s MNB from top to bottom:

When’s the last time that you published MNB and did not type the name Wal-Mart even once?

Been a long time.

We actually we going to mention that yesterday’s MNB was a Wal-Mart-free zone…but that would have been self-defeating.
KC's View: