“We’re Environmentally Conscious, So Buy Our Cereal!”

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.

9 thoughts on ““We’re Environmentally Conscious, So Buy Our Cereal!”

  1. Hey Pop Tarts taste great! That should be on the top of the scale. At the bottom of the scale is whatever they are made of.

  2. Damn. And here I thought General Mills was finally doing its civic duty by putting Greg Louganis’ picture on the Wheaties box.

  3. Stop promoting the lies in the Lifehacker blog on the Cheerios bee seed packet. The blogger personally admitted to me that she got the identity wrong on the forget-me-not – Myosotis scorpioides isn’t even in the seed trade. Also California Poppy is not considered invasive throughout the southeastern U.S. She also recommended that people check out University extension websites for plant suggestions for home pollinator gardens, and most of the sites I visited had both native and non-native plant recommendations. General Mills didn’t screw up by not checking their seed mix. The blogger screwed up by not researching the facts adequately.

    • Ah, the cheery-picking tactic, as if the minutiae regarding any specific flower in the mix is crucial to either the article or the issue, which was cynical virtue-signalling. By definition, sending one mix of seeds nation-wide is incompetent. I don’t trust the Life-hacker site, and didn’t use it this time. The point that non-native flowers and be invasive is a fact.

      Go to your room.

      • You are making a broad generalization without much fact to substantiate it. Most agricultural crops, garden flowers, lawns and vegetables are non-native. Are those all invasive? You have to know the individual species characteristics to deem them invasive. You are obviously not a plant expert and so you cannot make specific comments on the species in the mix. How about some specific research references indicating that the species in the mix are not appropriate? Most vegetables in my backyard are non-native, and they are grown all over the country. You don’t think some flowers can be as adaptable?

        • Not the point: if you seriously care about the environment, you engage in due diligence. You don’t send billions of seed hither and yon in ignorance. If the selection wasn’t problematic, it could have been.

          • Umm…. why are you assuming General Mills didn’t select a good mix? The article says, they “didn’t bother to check with anyone who knows anything about wildflowers or the environment.” Isn’t this an assumption based upon the false facts in the original Lifehacker blog? There is a growing body of research by urban ecologists showing that a combination of native and non-native flowers can provide excellent flower diversity for pollinator gardens in URBAN ENVIRONMENTS. As long as the non-natives are safe to use, why is this a bad thing?

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