And if you are really just cynical, reckless virtue-signalling grandstanders? How good does that make your cereal?
General Mills, the company that makes Honey Nut Cheerios, launched a creative campaign to raise awareness about declining bee and other pollinator populations in the U.S. and Canada, or, perhaps, to sell more cereal. Which do you guess it is? I’m stumped!
The company gave away 1.5 billion allegedly bee-friendly wildflower seeds attached to its Honey Nut Cheerios boxes. urging consumers to plant the seeds in their backyards and community spaces. More wildflowers, after all, will mean more food and shelter for our stressed honeybee population. There is a real problem to address here: honeybees and the honey industry are threatened. From April 2015 to April 2016, beekeepers lost 44 percent of their honeybee colonies. The U.S. Agriculture Department says that it was the second year in a row that beekeepers lost as many bees during the summer as they did during the winter. Of the 47 species of bees native to the U.S. and Canada, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature says more than a quarter face a risk of extinction from pesticide poisoning, climate change, disease and habitat loss.
But General Mills doesn’t really care about honey bees. If it did, it would have put some thought into its promotion. No, all it was doing, like most companies when they advertise, is counting on the cognitive dissonance scale to do its magic:
It works every time. See, environmental sensitivity is at the top of the scale. So are flowers: who doesn’t like flowers? Below the zero mark for a lot of people are empty calorie breakfast cereals and big consumer corporations. Dr. Leon Festinger, who developed the scale more than half a century ago, showed through his research that when something we place high on the scale is associated or linked to something low on the scale, the low item naturally rises in our esteem. (The higher-placed things will drop, too; the process reduces dissonance, the inate human difficulty of holding two inconsistent values.) This is why candidates for office recruit celebrities and sports figures to endorse them, as if Tom Brady or Rihanna have any more expertise about government and politics than the average 7-11 clerk. This is also why the news media and Democrats keep “linking” President Trump to Russia without any evidence whatsoever—to drive him down on the scale.
Corporations try to bolster consumer favor of their products by grandstanding on social issues and the environment, as if blathering about climate change will make Pop Tarts taste any better. In this case, some intern in the General Mills marketing department probably said she had read somewhere that bees were disappearing, and since Honey Nut Cheerios have that cute little cartoon bee on the boxes, why not signal the company’s deep, sincere environmental concerns by giving out bee-friendly wildflower seeds with every box? Brilliant!
Do you know how we can be sure that General Mills doesn’t really care about wildflowers, and just wanted to position itself well on the scale? We know because it didn’t bother to check with anyone who knows anything about wildflowers or the environment.The seed packets include several invasive plant species from Europe and Asia, such as the Chinese forget-me-not, which can overpower local species in parts of the Midwest and Northeast. Some of the seeds are banned by law in some regions. Botanists say that it’s unlikely that the packets will cause any serious damage—for one thing, only a small percentage are likely to be planted—but still, distributing non-native species is not ecologically responsible.
Kayri Havens, senior director of ecology and conservation at the Chicago Botanic Garden gently suggested that if General Mills really wanted to encourage Cheerios-eaters do something for bees for the long-term, it should urge them to plant some species that are native to each region and perennial, stop using lay pesticides, and stop clearing out their gardens so often. Bees love to nest in hollow spaces and dead plants.
Yeah, but that’s not as splashy and scale-dynamic as free wildflower seeds!
Havens kindly referred to the campaign as “well-intentioned.” I guess so, if you think selling more cereal by pretending to care about something is especially virtuous.