In yet another social media campaign that turned into a “Be Careful What You Wish For” episode, anti-GMO campaigners have hijacked General Mills‘ Cheerios Facebook page. What was supposed to be a warm-and-fuzzy page dedicated to childhood odes to Cheerios has turned into an anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) rant.
GMOInside, which describes itself as a coalition of organizations set to launch a “safe food campaign,” complete with its own Facebook page, is behind these shenanigans. Caught flat-footed, General Mills should have taken a page from other companies whose social media campaigns went haywire. For example, look how McDonald’s #McDStories unraveled earlier this year. When you ask for stories, you may open a can so full of worms that the lid will never close again. Safeway also had a rough time this spring when calls for adoring comments about its deli and produce became catcalls about the company’s dubious firing of a heroic employee.
In the case of GMOInside, the catalyst for the massive heckling of General Mills came as a response to the company’s contribution of $1.1 million to the anti-Proposition 37 campaign in California. Granted that sum is smaller than those from Monsanto and PepsiCo, but General Mills alone spent more money on the Prop 37 campaign than the most generous contributor to the pro-37 side, Mercola.com.
The trouble started when General Mills launched a smartphone app that allowed users to comment about what the Cheerios brand meant to them. Those messages, which were transcribed into that classic Cheerios font, ended up on the brand’s Facebook page. But since late November, the GMOInside coalition has urged its followers to send messages to General Mills via that app. The cereal giant, in turn, removed the app’s link from its Facebook page, but the damage has been done.
The Cheerios Facebook page is less a wall of tributes from the 1960s and 1970s and is now smothered in anti-GMO comments, riddled with jeers from customers saying they will no longer purchase the cereal until the company answers questions about its ingredients. Advice about where to find non-GMO alternatives to Cheerios abound; Trader Joe’s may want to send a (non-GMO) fruit basket to GMOInside’s office to thank them for new business when the ruckus finally calms down.
Consumers focused on the issue of transparency and right-to-know, and less on the “Frankenfood” argument that often muddies the debate over GMOs, may raise an eyebrow over this spat. The oats themselves are not in question; but the sugar, corn starch, wheat starch and Vitamin E are described by the GMOInside coalition “are likely to be derived from GMOs.” The upshot is, we do not know for sure whether General Mills is using biotech ingredients in its classic cereal. Plus, the claim that 90 percent of Americans want GMO labeling is quite a stretch: the trouncing Prop 37 suffered on Election Day shows the argument is much more nuanced.
But the lesson for General Mills and other large food companies is that transparency, not trivial marketing messages, are what consumers now demand. Until consumers are assured that GMOs are safe, the push to suppress any disclosure over GMOs will only create more suspicion and scorn. Meanwhile, the fact that most industrialized countries have required GMO labeling demonstrates that food companies actually are casting away business opportunities: more consumers globally lean towards non-GMO foods if they know for certain that is the truth about their favorite products. And here in the U.S., long lines at the Whole Food and Trader Joe’s checkout counters are just one example of where customers are quick to spend their money.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).