The Corporations in Your Diet
“Native advertising” has recently emerged as an important financing strategy for news publications in print and online. Recognizing that traditional Internet and print advertising is no longer very effective in motivating consumer demand, and that media fortunes depend on advertising revenues, the media and corporate advertisers have joined forces to combine journalism with advertising in the context of a single news story. What appears to be a traditional piece of news is actually an article sponsored by a corporate entity, designed to increase interest in that corporation’s products or services. John Oliver’s funny and arresting coverage of this issue is definitely worth watching. Among the most noteworthy recent examples of native advertising are The Atlantic’s coverage of scientology (an article on scientology sponsored by the Church of Scientology) and The New York Times’ coverage of the plight of women in prison (an article sponsored by the Netflix show Orange is the New Black).
In addition to its appalling implications for democratic debate and freedom of information, native advertising has huge implications for our health and wellbeing. How we eat, what we consider to be nutritious, and the food products we buy at the grocery store are influenced by the merger of advertising and news reports on health and nutrition. Scholars and activists—like Raj Patel, Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, Walden Bello, Alice Waters and Vandana Shiva—have illustrated the growing power of large corporations in the global food system and the negative consequences this dynamic has for our health, wallets, environment and political system. Against this backdrop, native advertising shows how corporate power extends into our most intimate and personal decisions and behaviors.
Take for instance this recent article from the Huffington Post, sponsored by the Whole Grain Council. The article notes that September is “Whole Grains Month”, a time to celebrate “amaranth, barley, buckwheat, millet, oats, quinoa, rye, sorghum, spelt, teff, triticale and other whole grain wonders”. The article details the extensive nutritional benefits of a diet full of whole grains: “Really, though, everyone wins with whole grains. They're complex carbs for good energy, and offer a host of vitamins, minerals and nutrients refined wheat products lose in processing.” The author notes that she “loves the Whole Grains Council and the traditional nourishing whole foods of the world they advocate.*” Note the asterisk at the end of this sentence—it appears in the original and refers to the following statement at the end of the article: “I was not compensated for this post but as one of the Whole Grains Council's Make the Switch bloggers, I received a few whole grain goodies to sample, for which I say thank you. All opinions expressed are my own.”
What the article doesn’t mention is that the Whole Grains Council—which misleadingly calls to mind some beneficent organization of moms and grandmas intent on ensuring that you eat well—is actually a trade association of the various corporations that dominate national and international trade and processing of cereal grains. Its founding membership includes multinational giants Frito Lay, General Mills, Hain Celestial Group, and Snyder’s of Hanover. While whole grains may indeed have a role to play in fostering good nutrition (this is a much debated issue despite all the hype), what is certain is that these companies reap large financial benefits from convincing us that whole grains are good for our health.
Elsewhere in the food system, Andrew Kimbrell—executive director of the Center for Food Safety—reports that the forum to which he was invited to discuss genetically modified foods was actually wholly sponsored by Monsanto, having been engineered to look “authoritative” and “journalistic”. Meanwhile, on Web MD, a conversation with a pharmacist about weight loss is sponsored by Walmart Pharmacy, where one could presumably purchase all of the wonderful weight loss cures (from diet pills to acai berry supplements) recommended by the pharmacist.
Big companies that don’t care about your well-being make lots of money propagating nutritional and dietary advice that tries to get you to purchase their products. In this context, native advertising is hugely problematic because it purposefully conceals the corporate interests that lie behind media reporting on diet and nutrition, preventing consumers from making independent and educated decisions about their health and well-being.