Food Elites: A Taxonomy

This post continues Casual Kitchen's periodic discussion of consumer empowerment.

When it comes to the food and consumer products environment, there are all sorts of forces, both visible and not-so-visible, influencing what we see and what we buy--and even how we think. Today I'm going to talk about two types of elites who play a surprisingly large role in our consumption decisions.

These elites come in two primary flavors: Tastemakers and Regulators.

Tastemakers influence us by showing us what we should like. Here's one possible example of how this influence can play out: Imagine you're over at your wine snob friend's home, and he shows you an expensive California cabernet he just bought. While he's talking about it, he casually mentions "this wine got a 93 score in Wine Spectator Magazine!"

There's a delicate fiction here: As much as your neighbor wants to think he's thinking for himself, the opposite is true: he was told. He was told what to think and what to buy. It happened by the following chain of events:

1) Winemakers make a wine designed to "ace the test" (in other words, they construct wines that wine scorers tend to rate highly).

2) Wine retailers publicize high scoring wines and generally charge higher prices for them.

3) Your wine snob friend sees the score and high price (high score + high price = must be good) and instantly "likes" the wine.

This is Tastemaking. As Pavlovian as this process may sound, it actually meets everyone's needs. Your neighbor receives ego gratification and identity construction as a successful person with excellent taste. The retailer and the winemaker receive... more money. Voila, everybody's happy.* Of course, it goes without saying that the reason you are shown this wine, and the very reason you're inclined to like it, is the same reason you pay a higher price for it.

Wine isn't the only realm where Tastemaking happens, it simply offers us a blatant example of elites doing our choosing for us. In fact, Tastemaking occurs throughout the consumer products industry and throughout nearly every life domain, from automobiles to vacation destinations, even the universities your children attend. Tastemakers brand, rate, rank and attach aspirational qualities to all of these things in a wide range of ways, all of which impact our choices, decisions and purchases. And we play along--a lot more than we'd like to think.

And let's also admit: at times Tastemaking can produce amazing products. We might laugh at the millions of hipsters sleeping out for the next iWhatever, but then again, it pays to remember the well-known Steve Jobs' quote "people don't know what they want until you show them."

Of course if it were up to me, I'd hope truly conscious consumers (like readers here at Casual Kitchen) would detect the implicit condescension in Jobs' statement rather than mindlessly "aspire" to his company's products.

Okay, let's move on to the second form of food elite: the Regulator.

Rather than telling us to what to like, Regulators tell us what's good for us--whether we like it or not. In the world of food, Regulator elites could be people like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Michele Simon, or former FDA Commissioner David Kessler.

Regulators often use a rhetorical tactics to try to convince us, saying things like:

This is healthy/better for you.
This is better policy.
This is better for the environment.
This is better for society, or better for the poor.
This is morally/ethically superior.

Regulators often attempt to influence the government to pass laws and regulations to get us to do what's good for us, even to protect us from our own stupidity. And this isn't a bad thing at all, not even close. After all, we have Regulators to thank for things like seat belts, food ingredient labels, nutritional information and so on.

However, there are periodic examples where Regulators overstep themselves in a tone-deaf and deeply condescending manner. New York City's failed "large soda" ban is a textbook example here: one well-known Regulator wanted this ban so badly that she lost control of her own logic centers. This is the type of food elitism that books like The Food Police criticize, and justifiably so.

Interestingly, certain food elites are both Tastemakers and Regulators. Michael Pollan, for example, uses his column in the New York Times to advocate for food and ag policy, while in his books he offers endless elite Tastemaking examples, telling us about the pork shoulder he buys from local pigs lovingly grown and "finished on acorns," or lecturing readers on the near-immorality of microwave ovens. Here at Casual Kitchen we teased Pollan for his pretensions, but elsewhere many listen... and imitate.

So, readers: is all this bothersome to you? Is the subtext from elites like these--that they know better than we do--at all frustrating, even condescending? If so, then why do so many people obey, and think they're thinking for themselves when they do so?

Readers, what do you think?

* Well, not quite everyone. Consider the unintended consequence of any widely accepted scoring system: producers produce not for consumers, but for the scorers. This helps explain why American reds are all "big" and why American chardonnays tend to be over-oaked and over-buttered. A system built around widely publicized wine scores isn't designed to help the consumer looking for interesting or original wines sold at a good value.

Read Next: How to Give Away Your Power By Being a Biased Consumer

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.

Temporary Austerity

Unless you've never heard of a place called "Europe" before, you've probably seen the phrase fiscal austerity quite often in the media over the past few years. Usually, it's in the context of fiscally challenged countries like Greece or Cyprus: countries needing to slash government spending quickly and aggressively to fix a severe debt or deficit problem.

Here at Casual Kitchen we use the concept of fiscal austerity too, but we apply it to household budgeting. And for the past two summers we've been doing what we call temporary austerity: each year, for just a few months, we aggressively reduce our spending--and reap the benefits.

How do we practice temporary austerity? We choose, for a few months only, to emphasize things like cooking laughably cheap food rather than eating out, enjoying the summer at home rather than traveling, or inviting friends over for dinner rather than going out on the town. Our temporary austerity might also include enjoying mostly low- or zero-cost activities like running, hiking or playing tennis in our town's public courts. We even make a point to avoid TV and mass media, helping us to be even less tempted to go out and buy stuff.

In other words, for a finite time period, we center our lives around doing things that don't involve spending money, and reject (more than we already do) the default consumerist solution of using money to entertain ourselves.

The benefits of fiscal austerity are obvious, of course. You can ramp up your savings during these months to a level much greater than typical--it works for household budgets the same way it works for Greece or Cyprus. And money freed up during a period of austerity can fund all sorts of great things: future travel, aggressive debt reduction, investments in income-generating assets like dividend paying stocks, or pre-funding some major household expense.

But we also found that austerity involves much more than just saving money. We also found ourselves deliberately choosing to do less during these months, embracing a more tranquil, less busy and less chaotic daily life.

All of which led to a totally unexpected outcome: by doing less, we could do more.

The time we didn't waste on default consumer activity or passive media consumption opened up significant additional time for intellectual pursuits we deeply enjoy--like reading, writing and language learning. We planted basil and cherry tomato plants on the little balcony of our townhouse (we also planted horseradish roots outside our front door, sadly our community groundskeeping service mistook them for weeds and murdered them). Except for the unfortunate horseradish plantings, these were all tranquil, deeply satisfying and practically free pursuits that we could never have done properly if we'd spent the summer rushing around.

But what was most striking about this experience is how it made the past two summers among the best summers of our lives. I never really thought about this before, but it's not only true that the busier you are the more money you spend. It's also true that the busier you are the less meaningful life seems.

Finally, we never felt deprived in the least. Why? Because all along we knew the austerity was temporary. In just a few short months we'd go back to our normal lives.

Ironically, we didn't really want to.

Read Next: Expediency and Treadmill Effects

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.

The Taboo Tradeoff

Readers, today's post is a follow-up to last week’s contentious* article on how the consumer products industry sells us high-priced aspirational goods safer insecticide survey--when they actually make us negligibly more safe. Today we'll explore another example of how the consumer products industry benefits from our irrationality.

There was an alternate version of last week's safer insecticide survey asking parents to imagine two additional types of the product for their children:

1) The regular insecticide where the risk of inhalation and child poisoning was 15 per 10,000 bottles.

2) A less expensive insecticide where the risk rose from 15 per 10,000 to 16 per 10,000.

The survey asked parents how much of a discount would induce them to switch to the less expensive product. Shockingly, two thirds of the parents said they wouldn't purchase the less expensive product... at any price!

Now, on one hand, this is really just a reframing of the consumer choice question from last week. This time, however, the choice is framed as a comparison between a "regular" product with a very small risk and a "discount" product that's technically more dangerous, but negligibly so.

Any consumer capable of sixth grade math will see that the incremental danger of choice #2 is so tiny as to be utterly meaningless. Further, if our personal safety has any quantifiable value at all, there must be some discount that would make the second product worth it to us.

Except that the discounted product is never worth it to us, no matter how much cheaper it is. Why? This is the part that's heavy: Because it "feels" like you're subjecting your child to more risk... just to save a little extra money. In fact, the greater the price discount, the stingier and more terrible you feel!

It's like going to a discount heart surgeon. Nobody goes to a discount heart surgeon.

Psychologists call this the taboo tradeoff. And people respond to taboo tradeoffs in an irrational and deeply emotional way. Yet again, we struggle to think clearly or logically about both the economics and the incremental degree of safety, and we view our feelings of safety to be far more important than the actual quantifiable increment of safety. It's difficult to explain exactly why this happens, but Daniel Kahneman offers a theory that fear of regret motivates the decision:

"The what-if? thought that occurs to any parent who deliberately makes such a trade is an image of the regret and shame he or she would feel in the event the insecticide caused harm."

Okay. So if consumer products companies can create products evoking aspirational feelings, taboo tradeoffs--even anticipatory regret and shame--don't you think it would be child's play for them to use these feelings to get us to pay more? A lot more?

Think through this. Are you getting real value for the high-priced "safer" products you buy, or are these products merely preying on your fears and your need for identity construction? How would an empowered consumer think about this? Readers, what do you think?

Once again, I’m grateful to Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow for helping me think though these psychological issues and apply them to the theme of consumer empowerment.

* Finally, speaking of contentiousness, here's a link to an, uh, interesting twitter exchange with a reader who missed my point entirely and tried to shame me for being "gleeful at the expense of human suffering." Nice, right?

Read Next: Consumers: Pay For Your Own Brainwashing! (Or Don't)

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.

Consumer Empowerment: The High Cost of a "Feeling" of Safety

Readers, today I want to share an unsettling insight into consumer psychology, using an experiment described in Daniel Kahneman's striking book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Edit: see the follow up to this post: The Taboo Tradeoff
The question below is adapted from a study of the rationality of consumer valuations of health risks, which was published by a team of economists in the 1980s. The survey was addressed to parents of small children.

Suppose that you currently use an insect spray that costs you $10 per bottle and it results in 15 inhalation poisonings and 15 child poisonings for every 10,000 bottles of insect spray that are used.

You learn of a more expensive insecticide that reduces each of the risks to 5 for every 10,000 bottles. How much would you be willing to pay for it?

The parents were willing to pay an additional $2.38, on average, to reduce the risks by two-thirds from 15 per 10,000 bottles to 5. They were willing to pay $8.09, more than three times as much, to eliminate it completely. ...This premium is compatible with the psychology of worry, but not with the rational model [of decision-making].

So: it's clear that we humans will gladly overpay for vanishingly small increments of perceived safety, in total defiance of both math and probability. With that in mind, a question for readers:

Do you think the companies that sell to us are aware of this? Is it likely they price "safer" products accordingly and (essentially) profit from our worry?

Duh, of course. Yes, yes, and yes. Here are some consumer products categories where we can see this exact phenomenon:

Organic foods
"All natural" food products
"No added nitrites" meats
DEET-free mosquito repellent
Bisphenol-a free canned foods

Do you expect these products to carry premium prices, typically? Yes, in all of them. But more importantly, are the price premiums commensurate with the increased costs to the producer or retailer? In other words, is the producer charging more because the "safer" product actually costs more to make, or are they charging more simply because they can?

Admittedly, we don't know all the direct costs in each of the examples above. But we do know, for example, that grocers make significantly more profit on organic foods. Also, the cost of the chemicals in a DEET-free insect spray is likely to be very close to the cost of the raw materials in DEET-based spray. The cost of the plasticized liner inside a can of food is an irrelevancy compared to the value of the actual food in that can. Finally, it's quite likely that production costs for "no-added nitrites" meats are actually less then "nitrite-added" meats. You just have to think about it for a minute to see why.

So if the costs are the same, yet we see 30%, 50% and 100% price premiums for these products, let's be honest and call it like we see it: these products are obviously aspirational, and they're priced and marketed that way by design.

So, consider the following question as an empowered consumer: What value do you really get by paying substantially more for a label or sticker that may make you feeeeeel safer, but in reality offers you, at best, an imperceptible increase in safety?

Asked a slightly different way: how much extra will a disempowered consumer pay for the "feeling" of safety?

The consumer products industry already knows the answer to this question. Do you?

Read Next: Divorce Yourself from the False Reality of Your Grocery Store

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.

Bringing Partisan Rage to the Grocery Store

A few weeks ago, The Economist told its readers about a new smartphone app you can use in your grocery store to find out if the makers of a given food or consumer product agree or disagree with your politics:

"A new app called BuyPartisan reveals whether any given product is made by Republicans or Democrats. Using an iPhone's camera, it scans the barcode and reports back on the ideology (as measured by donations to political parties) of the directors and staff of the company in question."

Even the Colbert Report got in on this story (warning before you click: it's not all that funny). After watching it, I'm thinking that half of all Cheerios eaters are gonna need to rethink breakfast.

Of course, any CK reader--regardless of political affiliation--already knows to avoid all branded boxed cereals. It's not a political issue, it's an issue of consumers receiving proper value for their money.

But this brings up a bigger, broader question that I'd like to ask readers: How important is it that the company you buy from shares your views?

And if it's important, where do you draw the line? With what products? If you hear, for example, that the chairman of the company that makes your pasta brand doesn't happen to validate your lifestyle, do you instantly change brands?

And if that's the case, what if your monopoly electric power company leans to the left and you're a Republican? Do you live off the grid? What do you do if you're a Democrat, you need to fill up your tank, and you can't find a left-leaning oil company? Where do you compromise, and where won't you? Or does this even matter at all?

Readers, share your thoughts: does it matter if a company you buy from holds views that differ from yours?

Read Next: How To Be Manipulated By a Brand

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.