By Brian McIntyre, on November 11th 2015, in Dublin.
In the end, the pig industry became a cropper to a grabby headline: ‘Bacon gives you cancer!’ What could be clearer than that? Well, it transpires, the whole truth could have been way clearer than that.
‘BaconGate’ describes the hysteria generated by the World Health Organisation’s announcement that bacon (among other foods) was situated in Tier 1 of certainty, alongside the likes of smoking, in having sufficient evidence that it indeed causes cancer. Well, yes, but an important rider failed to come through in communication: the risk of cancer associated with smoking is way higher than bacon, by an order of magnitude of about 20.
The debacle that ensued has impacted bacon sales (reports range from -3% to -20% in the immediate week following the announcement) and is fertile ground to understand the nature of communication, and how best to deal with brands or categories in crises which are not fully warranted.
Let’s slice the implications into three delicious, mouth-watering strips:
Communication follows the drama, not the truth. An accurate scientific reading of the WHO’s conclusions would report both the certainty and the relative risk involved in the consumption of bacon. Without both parts of the story, panic easily unfolds. The media clearly decided it was most dramatic to run with the ‘bacon causes cancer’ line. In a sense, the old marketing trick of ‘lead with the exciting truth, not the whole truth’ seemed to backfire on the bacon industry as a result. In fairness, the implicit rules of advertising are quite different from journalism. The former is charged primarily with seduction, the latter most keenly with information.
Judging by their clarifications, it seems the WHO feels a little bruised that their findings, which were nuanced and measured, should be so communicated. Too late. Bacon brands will be picking up the bacon bits for some time to come.
A good story will not be retold. Once a catchy narrative is out there, it is extremely difficult to re-tell the tale. This is simply how our neurones are wired. Once we land the essence of a story, it takes up residence. Quasi-permanent! A mythology grows around it, and, no matter what the evidence to the contrary, the original sticks.
Victoria Beckham, introduced to the world as posh and superficial, has proven to be anything but… But who cares?
Madonna, introduced to the world as a two-dimensional material vamp has proven to be a super-talented, strategic, enduring and courageous artist. But who cares? She still has to fight for basic respect.
And then there’s the newly minted Justin Trudeau, cast as Canada’s telegenic, hunky Prime Minister. The same man has already challenged such a superficial depiction in choosing a Cabinet notable for its world-first levels of diversity and gender balance. And yet, check in with your friends next year as to what they know of Justin Trudeau. I bet you this: he’ll be famous for being handsome. Period.
You can’t undo an unfair story – you can only move beyond it. That is to say, in arguing why bacon does not cause as much cancer as you may think, the bacon industry will automatically lose. The ‘Streisand Effect’ is in operation (i.e. the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequences of publicising the information more widely). The story goes like this: Barbra Streisand tried to quash media from publicising where she lived through the courts. Her efforts to do so assured that way more people discovered her personal address by the end of her legal debacle. Streisand had aggravated the very thing she wished to quell.
The WHO’s findings on bacon are an important, if subtle, enhancement of what we have known from some time. Eating too much of anything causes problems. Processed meats, including bacon, should be consumed in balance. There are important risks associated with consumption of certain foods which should shape and moderate our behaviour.
BaconGate took that adult message and processed it into bite-size chunks for mass media and social media, creating a story which helped to deepen confusion and not lessen it.
Caught in the middle of a misinformed maelstrom, citizens and consumers can easily lose the will to care. And that is probably the biggest cancer of all.