What One Food Fight Reveals About Bad Businesses

Last Updated Jul 11, 2011 12:41 PM EDT

No one wants to be branded as an "bad" company. But some businesses just can't help themselves.

Consider the recent actions of a group calling itself the Sensible Food Policy Coalition, a group comprised of America's biggest food makers, fast-food chains and media companies, including Viacom and Time Warner.

They're trying to block standards proposed by four federal agencies that would create voluntary nutritional guidelines for foods marketed to children.

The guidelines are meant to encourage food makers to cut the amount of salt, added sugars and fats in foods and drinks marketed to children. Here's a PDF of the proposal.
Why on earth would anyone try to stop guidelines, particularly voluntary guidelines, from being adopted? The food industry has its own business-friendly guidelines it would rather use and it believes the government's actions could eliminate 75,000 jobs a year.

Consumers, and particularly parents, see things differently.

And speaking as both a consumer and a parent, I can say many of us are outraged by the way TV, print and online ads target our kids with foods that are obviously unhealthy.

They've done it before
It's hardly the first time corporate America has been on the wrong side of an issue. The Tobacco Institute, an umbrella organization funded by the American tobacco industry, was established in 1958 to defeat legislation unfavorable to the tobacco industry and downplay the health risks of smoking. It was disbanded in 1998 as part of the tobacco settlement.

You can see the evidence of decades of misdeeds at its searchable website.

More recently, a group called Health Care America was used to discredit Michael Moore's documentary, Sicko. Former insurance industry insider Wendell Potter reveals the campaign in his book, Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans. It's part of a broader effort to neutralize health care reform that continues to this day.

But no one should be surprised that companies are engaged in these practices. After all, they're only protecting their profits.

What is surprising is that consumers believe that somehow, corporations should be acting in a responsible and ethical manner, when all indicators point in the opposite direction.

There's something to be learned from all this.

People believe what they're told. If you repeat something enough, customers will believe you. That's true for tobacco, fraudulent health insurance and fast food. If you say cigarettes may not be dangerous, that useless health care policies and greasy burgers are just another consumer choice, the American consumer will buy it.

Customers (wrongly) assume companies share their values. It's a basic consumer instinct, to believe that the company you're doing business shares your core values â€" which is to say, its employees feel the same way your do about what's fair and understand the difference between right and wrong. However, that may not always be the case. It may hardly ever be the case, as a matter of fact.

Consumers think businesses will do the right thing. Taking it a step further, customers believe companies will act on those shared beliefs and do the right thing. They'd never endanger your life by selling you a dangerous product. Or sell unhealthy food to your children. Or insurance that will deny your claim in your hour of need.

The debate over food labeling aside, customers can learn a lot from companies that do "bad" things.

As it turns out, a company can lack a conscience. It is an organization with a single minded purpose: to make money.

Customers, on the other hand, have a conscience.

And perhaps the only truly effective way to impose theirs on a company is by withholding their business.

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Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He's the author of the upcoming book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, which critics have called it "eye-opening" and "inspiring." You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
Photo: L. Marie/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.