Posted tagged ‘marketing’

We need labels on our labels

March 10, 2016

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

There’s been a push lately for more-explicit labeling of foods—to make sure that consumers know that what they’re buying is organic, or free-range, or natural, or GMO-free, etc. But these labels don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes, they’re outright lies.

For instance, “organic” veggies still contain plenty of pesticides. There are the natural pesticides that ordinarily occur in food, plus the organic-OK chemical pesticides that are routinely sprayed on the crops. And, bonus, you’re also very likely to find synthetic, presumably evil pesticides on your “organic” produce, too. To make this more clear, I propose that the “organic” label, itself, have a label. It could say something like “may or may not have more or less synthetic or natural pesticides or other chemicals than you expect.” That there’s an honest label!

But wait—that term, “natural”—that might not mean what consumers think it means, either. The word needs a label! Products that say “natural” can be treated with radiation (typically to prevent spoilage and extend shelf life), and natural produce can be grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. “Natural” products, as labeled, can even include what are known as “genetically modified organisms” or GMOs. So, to be clear, we’ll just put a label on that word, “natural”. Something like “may have been made with chemicals or processes that many would deem ‘un-natural’, but who knows?”

I like that “but who knows?” caveat at the end. It seems friendly. Plus, it’s entirely honest. It’s a fair label that expresses exactly what “natural” really means.

And GMOs, GMOs – that’s a tricky one, isn’t it? “Genetically modified” is another term that’s unfortunately vague. In truth, the genome of any species is always in flux, changing at least a little bit with each generation. “Modifications” happen, with or without any intervention by us. And humans, who’ve been committed to agriculture for about 12,000 years, have speeded along the genetic modification of every single organism we consume by cross-breeding. Have a carrot, or a tomato, or a cow, and you’re eating an organism that hasn’t existed in “nature” for thousands of years. In the last hundred years, we started bombarding the genetic material of organisms with chemical mutagens, just to see what kind of characteristics we could get (that works quicker than cross breeding, though it’s kind of scatter-shot—you don’t know what you’ll end up with.) This kind of technology, though, hasn’t offended or worried the anti-GMO crowd, so these sorts of foods don’t count as “GMOs.” The genes are modified, sure, but not, you know, modified-modified.

So, in the interests of honesty, I’m thinking an appropriate label for the non-GMO food label might be “not modified using modern technology that we didn’t use, though likely modified in other ways.” Simple, short, honest!

All of these labels on the labels, that’s going to be a whole lot of stickers on your holiday ham. I’ve got an even better idea, one that captures the true spirit of all of these words and stickers and labels, a phrase that actually means exactly what all of these terms are all about: “BUY THIS.”

It’s all just marketing, folks. Of course, buy the food if it’s tasty and nutritious and something your family wants. But don’t fall for these food label words. It’s all marketing, nothing more. These words are there only to get you to spend your money. And I’ll bet you’ve got something better to spend money on than a bunch of labels.

Food labels

How Drug Reps change the way your doctor prescribes

September 6, 2013

The Pediatric Insider

© 2013 Roy Benaroch, MD

You’re at the doctor’s office, and you see strolling up to the window a good-looking, well-dressed professional. They’re usually pulling a little discreet cart, and after a few words with the receptionist they’re rushed right back. Sometimes they’ll bring a tray of cookies, or they’ll be followed by a caterer with a cartful of food.

You think they had an appointment? No, but you can be they’re here to see the doctor.

Take a look at this wonderful—and very dismaying—article from PLOS medicine, written by a physician and a former pharmaceutical sales rep. The practice of “detailing”, or in-person visits to doctors ostensibly to provide medical information on the latest pharmaceutical products, is a many-billion-dollar industry aimed at making sure your physicians prescribe what the industry wants them to prescribe. Hint: it’s the newest medicines with the biggest profit margins.

So what if the newest medicines aren’t the best for you?

You really ought to read the article. Summarizing it just won’t do it justice. You’ll see what specific techniques the reps use, and how they get the data they need to influence the doctors they’re pretending to befriend. I’ll just post one quote that sums it up:

“While it’s the doctors’ job to treat patients and not to justify their actions, it’s my job to constantly sway the doctors. It’s a job I’m paid and trained to do. Doctors are neither trained nor paid to negotiate. Most of the time they don’t even realize that’s what they’re doing…”

I’ll tell you that when the subject of drug reps comes up among doctors, most are offended by the very idea that we’re being manipulated. We think we’re far too smart for that—a bagel and smile isn’t going to change what we do. All those years of training insulate us from the effects of crass marketing, right?

Look: if it didn’t work, they wouldn’t spend billions doing it.

At my office, we have a strict policy: the reps drop off samples, and that’s it. No talking to docs, no food, no gifts allowed. I’d rather honestly go without the samples, but some families really do need them. Perhaps even allowing that is allowing the reps to go too far. I know I’m not immune. Is your physician?

Selling to children

September 7, 2010

The Pediatric Insider

© 2010 Roy Benaroch, MD

At the Pediatric Insider, I try to illustrate how people think: how doctors think about health and illness, and how parents think about raising their kids. Sometimes, our own experiences and preconceptions can fool us. That’s why adults seem to think expensive placebos are more effective, and why some well-meaning parents refuse vaccines despite overwhelming evidence of their safety and effectiveness. The internet has, of course, amplified the effects of misinformation and innuendo. It has also created a way for real-but-crazy stories to seem more close-to-home. We’re being bombarded by messages that subvert and influence our thinking in very creepy ways.

Fortunately, our children are immune to this kind of hanky-panky. Right?

In a July 2010 study titled “Influence of Licensed Characters on Children’s Taste and Snack Preferences,” researchers created a simple protocol to see if a smiling, familiar cartoon face changed the perceived tastiness of three common foods. They prepared pairs of bags of graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks, and baby-cut carrots, each labeled in clear packaging. The only difference was that one of each pair included a sticker with a cartoon character (Shrek, Dora, or Scooby Doo.) Each of the 40 children in the study were presented with a pair and asked to take a single bite of each food. Afterwards, they were asked if the two tasted the same, and if not, which one tasted better. Keep in mind that the pairs of food were exactly the same in every way, including the packaging and presentation—except for the cartoon sticker on one of the two bags.

You can guess what happened.

About a third of the kids correctly answered that the foods tasted the same (or said “I don’t know.”) Of the children who perceived a difference, 70-90 % preferred the foods with the licensed characters.

This should surprise no one. Look around the grocery store, especially at breakfast cereals and “snack foods” and other items sold at a child’s eye level. They’re festooned with popular characters exhorting children to buy, buy, buy and eat, eat, eat!

Of course, there’s a silver lining here. Maybe parents ought to buy a strip of Dora stickers to slap on the carrots when Junior’s not looking. When the going gets tough, the tough get sneaky!

Can doctors be bought?

October 5, 2008

As recently published in The New York Times, Dr. Charles Nemeroff from Emory University has been accepting millions of dollars of income from pharmaceutical companies and device manufacturers without accurate disclosure. In other words, he’s taking money from the companies whose products he is endorsing and supporting through published articles, speaking engagements, and research. Lots of money, and he’s been doing it for years.

Dr. Nemeroff is no ordinary psychiatrist. He’s published hundreds of papers, and has served on dozens of corporate boards. Until recently, he was the editor of the very influential journal Neuropsychopharmacology—and is said to have been driven from this position after an outcry over a positive editorial over a medical device made by a company with which Dr. Nemeroff had financial ties. Again, no disclosure was made of this at the time.

This case is far from isolated. Earlier this year it was widely reported that Dr. Joseph Biederman of Harvard University was caught in a similar scandal. He was recommending and endorsing an ever-increasing use of certain medications while taking millions of dollars from their manufacturers. In this case, Dr. Biederman was most closely associated with a trend towards diagnosing and treating bipolar illness in children with powerful antipsychotic drugs that had never been approved for this use by the FDA. (more…)