How the poultry industry can gain post-truth consumers

Truth is subjective with the modern consumer, who may trust their feelings rather than the facts.

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New technology crossed with inherent human confirmation bias makes the truth about food more subjective. | Vitaly Gariev, Bigstock
New technology crossed with inherent human confirmation bias makes the truth about food more subjective. | Vitaly Gariev, Bigstock

Modern political thinkers like to say society is in a “post-truth” phase, where people are more likely to follow appeals to emotion than appeals to reason. New technology crossed with human confirmation bias enables people to tune into what they agree with and tune out everything else.

New research suggests the modern consumer is living in a sort of post-truth world, too. In December, the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) published the results of what it calls digital ethnography research. The CFI said it’s an attempt to cut through what consumers say they do and find out what they actually do. In two years, the organization profiled the online behavior of 8,500 consumers to determine what shapes their opinion on food.

The research determined the truth about food isn’t black and white. The credibility of information is linked to the consumer’s relationship with truth. For some people, truth is objective and their beliefs are grounded in evidence and science. For others, it’s subjective. What’s true depends on desires and beliefs. Most consumers, 74 percent, see the truth about food as something between the objective and subjective extremes.

The largest segment of the market – representing 39 percent of the consumer population – is part of a segment the CFI called the “follower.” A consumer overwhelmed by information and afraid of making the wrong choice. This consumer is looking for someone to guide them on both scientific and ethical grounds.

The research says values drive beliefs about food and are more likely to make a message resonate with the consumer. The CFI said shared values are three to five times more important for earning trust than simply sharing information.

For the poultry industry, and others in animal agriculture, this research is both good and bad.

On the negative, it shows only a small minority – about 15 percent of consumers – are putting facts and evidence first when making decisions about food. This undermines the science-first posture the industry takes when defending itself and shows people are ready to listen to the emotions-based tactics, and non-stop repetition of factually fuzzy talking points, of animal activists and online trolls.

On the positive, it offers guidance on how to adjust the message to better appeal to consumers. Transparency, showing where the bird comes from and how it got onto a plate, is good. Demonstrating values, or showing the industry cares about the same things and shares the same ethics as the average consumer, is better.

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