Imagine you just finished working out and you are starving. You check your watch. Two hours left until dinner. What would be the best thing now? You reach into your bag and grab a Nature Valley granola bar.
This sounds like something that I, and some of you, would do regularly. A leading granola bar company, Nature Valley is incredibly well-known among granola lovers out there. However, not many people know that Nature Valley actually belongs to General Mills, Inc – a holding company that markets more than 100 leading US food brands including Häagen-Dazs, Cheerios, Betty Croker, Chex Mix, Yoplait…etc. Placed among American Fortune 500 Corporation and “100 Best Corporate Citizens” by Corporate Responsibility magazine, General Mills, Inc. prides itself on being among the most socially responsible food companies in the world, which exercises ethical conduct in all aspects of its business.
You might think General Mills sounds like the epitome for every corporate to look at. Apparently, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and several consumers, do not believe so. The company has been sued multiple times for consumer fraud, associated with its spurious and misleading advertising claims.
Recently, the company faced a lawsuit regarding its Fruit Snacks. CSPI alleged that General Mills is basically “dressing up a very cheap candy as if it were a fruit and charging a premium for it. It’s an elaborate hoax on parents who are trying to do right by their kids”. By labeling its Fruit Snacks “naturally flavored”, “low fat”, “gluten free”, the company was trying to market the food as a lot healthier and more nutritious than it really is. However, General Mills defended its product, saying :”We stand behind our products and we stand behind the accuracy of the labeling of these products”.
This is not the first time General Mills has gotten into trouble. In 2009, Erin Wright brought the company to the court, accusing it of defrauding the public by using the term “100% Natural” on its Nature Valley crunchy granola and chewy trail mix bars, though they contained high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Wright argued the advertising is “false and deceptive” because HFCS is a non-natural, man-made sweetener, then sought economic damages for herself and all class members because the “100% natural” marketing led her to “purchase, purchase more of, or pay more for, these Nature Valley products”.
Now, does General Mills intentionally mislead consumers by saying that their products are healthy and natural? Does the company deliberately deceive parents by tricking them into believing that its junk foods is good snacks to feed their kids? I can see where Wright and CSPI were coming from. People can be easily deceived by what they see on the label, and are prone to eat whatever is branded as more healthy and low fat. By targeting this tendency and putting these attractive labels on their products , General Mills obviously tries to capture the heart and mind of consumers to increase its sales.
Is there anything wrong with its business practices? The answer is YES. The company has been acting against its own motto and taking advantage of people’s “gullibility”. Despite vigorously claiming to be “socially responsible” with helping to “improve the nutrition and fitness behaviors of families and children” and striving to “continuously improve food safety and understanding”, General Mills has aimed to maximize profits by providing customers with false and deceiving advertising, leading them to believe that they are consuming healthy-sounding food products that are actually not that healthy. I do believe that “truth in advertising” has gone out of the window a long time ago; there is hardly anyone holding companies responsible for playing with just the right words which are not “totally” false, but certainly invoke a false feel and understanding of their product. This is exactly what General Mills has been doing. Just as Milton Friedman said on our class reading, “in practice the doctrine of social responsibility is frequently a cloak for actions that are justified on other grounds rather than a reason for those actions”. Moreover, with cases like this, will the idea of corporations pursuing profits becomes demoted and seen in a negative light? Milton’s point is proved even further: “It helps to strengthen the already too prevalent view that the pursuit of profits is wicked and immoral and must be curbed and controlled by external forces…the iron fist of Government bureaucrats”. It would be mainly CSPI acting as the “external force” to manage the company’s irresponsible business practices.
So General Mills must be required to act more responsibly towards their consumers; but how about consumers themselves? Has CSPI been acting on the assumption that the consumers are not wise enough to know what they are eating? Maybe it all comes down to whether people actually read the labels well enough, though I personally think that any person in his right mind would know that fruit candies are candies, and not fruits. Most people do not look at these fruit rolls thinking they are actually nutritious. Do we really need some organizations to make lawsuits and tell us what is obvious? We cannot really blame the company for the consumers’ tendency to excessively eat whatever is branded as “healthy”. Therefore, I believe consumers are also responsible for making their own decisions and choosing what they eat for health. Blame the company; but before that, maybe we need to look at our behaviors first.
Milton might not be absolutely right with his arguments; however, maybe it is time for corporations to stop bluffing about social responsibility and stuff. On my part, as a consumer, I know what I want and I am responsible for it. Healthy or not, Nature Valley granola bars are still my favorites anyway.