Thursday, November 12, 2009

Unpalatable Reasoning

I once facilitated a marketing course for a group of bankers and was amazed, no, stunned by the lack of analysis and criticism in the 600plus-page textbook. Marketing was value-free and rational, finding only what consumers want and giving it to them.

Never was any consideration given to the idea that the whole marketing enterprise could so easily involve manipulation. In this textbook world, corporations large and small want only what is best for their customers, all of whom respond to marketing initiatives and advertising with decisions based on pure reason. Phooey!

The whole experience sensitized me to any rationalist argument when- and wherever I encounter it. And encounter it I did, recently in free minds and free markets  (November 2009) in Jacob Sullum's article "The Perils of Palatability."

Sullum reviews David A. Kessler's book The End of Overeating:Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. (The review incorrectly titles the book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Diet.)

Sullum first takes Kessler to task for dumpster-diving outside of Chili's restaurants in California, looking for nutrional analysis on boxes, instead of asking a restaurant employee or going to the company's website.
Or simply by assuming that food promoted as a mouth-watering yet affordable indulgence probably has a lot of fat, salt, and sugar in it. But as The End of Overeating more than amply demonstrates, Kessler is the sort of crusader who spares no effort to uncover the obvious.
The point here is not about Chili's restaurants. The point here is that some corporations lie (gasp!) and that Kessler wants to find out for himself. Also, in most research, even of the dumpster-diving variety, assuming is not the best course of action. The ad hominem fillip at the end about Kessler as researcher is just gratuitous sarcasm.

In Sullum's estimation, Kessler is in his own world of problems with food and cannot reason his way out of a bag of chips: "He combines banal observations, dressed up as scientific insights and revelations of corporate misdeeds, with presumptuous advice that overgeneralizes from his own troubled relationship with food. " Kessler even wants to regulate "Big Food" in the way he wanted to regulate "Big Tobacco" when he was head of the FDA.

What a terrible guy this Kessler must be. Imagine wanting to regulate corporations which sell us these unhealthful products.
Kessler urges readers to eschew pasta, French fries, bacon cheeseburgers, candy, and other “hyperpalatable” foods...He exhorts its victims to resist the machinations of the food industry, “the manipulator of the consumers’ minds and desires” (in the words of a “high-level food industry executive”).
Sullum makes it sound as if Kessler is a lone voice in the widerness wanting his readers to eschew food that is bad for them, instead of being only one of many, many voices, medical voices, advising the same thing.

I also have a vision of Sullum rolling his eyes at the idea that Big Food would manipulate "the consumers' minds and desires."  Imagine someone saying such things about big corporations!

Sullum sees contradiction where there is none:
the contradiction between his description of how the food industry goes to great lengths to give consumers exactly what they want and his claim that it arbitrarily decides what products it wants to sell, then uses marketing magic to create a demand for them.
Industries decide what they want to sell us; then use marketing and advertising to create a demand. When consumers do indeed demand because they were manipulated to do so, industries give them what they "want."  Only someone who believes that people are always reasonable, rational creatures, with no illogical drives, could see a contradiction here.

Sullum simply dismisses Kessler's scientific analyses of why the high palatability of food, coupled with promoting it as such, triggers overeating in a significant percentage of the population. If Sullum's argument is correct - that all experience leaves a mark in the brain, so there is nothing here to explain overeating - then we can also dismiss the science that helps us understand alcoholism and drug addiction.

Additionally, if we extrapolate from Sullum's criticism, we can also dismiss alcohol and drug addiction because some people can drink or experience a drug and not become addicted.

Finally, according to Sullum, we should all go ahead and eat whatever we want in whatever quantities we want because chef Anthony Bourdain does so on his show No Reservations, and because we should want pleasure, obviously, at any cost.

This review, in addition to being snarky and overly sarcastic about David Kessler, is based on the familiar assumption that we humans are entirely and purely logical creatures -  the "free mind" with no drives, urges, triggers or overwhelming neuro-transmitters, nothing that reason can't handle.

The idea is sheer cop-out; it legitimates consumer manipulation, which uses those very drives; then argues that the consumer can use reason against them.

My "phooey" antenna is thrumming.

I would like to invite David Kessler-  former chief of the FDA and professor of the San Francisco Medical School of the University of California - to my soiree. Jacob Sullum, not so much.

(Squirrel Photo)


Owen Gray said...

Having watched an interview with Kessler a couple of weeks ago, the review sounds like a hatchet job. Neo Classical economics -- the brand that is taught at the University of Chicago and the University of Calgary -- is rooted in the axiom that man is a "rational decision maker." Snake oil is always snake oil.

ChrisJ said...

Apparently very tasty snake oil!

Owen, I appreciate your comments; they are always spot on.

Anonymous said...

Hi, very interesting post, greetings from Greece!

ChrisJ said...


thanks for your comment. Greetings to you also in Greece.

Anonymous said...

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