Au Naturel

29 04 2012

We live in a consumer world in which there is great confusion. Words and phrases are often just marketingspeak. Occasionally the FDA will weigh in and demand that some of these words and phrases conform to established meanings, measures, etc. But until there is mass consumer confusion, the FDA tends to shy away from such interventions.

Like with the word “natural.” What the heck does this mean? Does it mean organic? Does it mean that the food has not been genetically modified? What? You tell me.

Because for all intents and purposes, it could just as easily have dirt in it. Dirt is pretty natural, you know. Just ask the folks at Kellogg’s, owner of the Kashi brand of “healthy” products, and you’ll see the trouble the word “natural” can cause.

Kellogg’s contends that “natural” means it is minimally processed and free of all artificial ingredients.” This alone will get you into Whole Foods. Some consumers, though, reply that it also means “organic” and not genetically modified. Same word, different interpretations. And no arbitrator to settle the score. Enter social media.

It all started when a Rhode Island grocer pulled the product from its shelves, arguing that Kellogg was being less than transparent in its packaging claims. A photograph went viral, and, well…you know the rest. Facebook pages are now littered with the detritus of consumer angst.

Here’s the problem: Kellogg did nothing wrong. Technically, that is. The word is not regulated, and so whatever the marketer wants “natural” to mean, that’s what it means. I bet Starbucks thought the same thing when they used crushed beetles for food coloring a few weeks ago. In fact, I know they did.

But in spite of the fact that I am a never-say-die free market capitalist, I do think that companies must live by a higher standard, and standard that lives by full disclosure. In other words, the sin of omission can be just as bad as one of commission. There was no lying involved…just failure to communicate everything. And it doesn’t take market researchers with the intelligence of rocket scientists to figure out that the word “natural” is one of the most misunderstood words on the shelf.

Which, from my side of the street, does not give a company permission to exploit it.

Sure, there is much to be said for consumer responsibility, which means that we bear the burden of knowing anything and everything that may be relevant to our lives. And far be it from me to even hint at wanting a nanny state in which we are protected not only from companies, but from each other. That would be a terrible place to live.

I just think that a company as big as Kellogg would find hiding behind the stained cloak of all-natural to be a little beneath its dignity. I’d like a bowl of honesty in the morning, with a healthy sprinkling of full disclosure for taste.

Dr “And A Cup Of Organic Soy Milk, Please” Gerlich


Racing For A Cure

23 04 2012

The following is a press release I wrote detailing the initial findings from our nationwide study of the Susan G. Komen controversy.

On January 31, 2012, the Susan G. Komen (SGK) announced it was pulling its grants for breast-cancer screening from Planned Parenthood. A firestorm of activity ensued, first among critics, and then later as supporters derided SGK’s decision to reverse the policy change. Since then, SGK has been faced with up to 30-percent reductions in both donations and event participation.

Within three days of SGK’s initial decision, the MediaBuffs research team had created and launched a nationwide survey to measure attitudes toward, and intentions to donate to, the non-profit. MediaBuffs consists of Dr. Kristina Drumheller (Assistant Professor of Communication) and Dr. R. Nicholas Gerlich (Professor of Marketing), both of West Texas AM University.

The survey was made available through Facebook and Twitter, as well as via a clearinghouse operated by Within 48 hours, a sample of approximately 350 respondents was collected; after incomplete surveys were culled, a usable sample of 276 was available for data analysis.

Numerous demographics and measures were collected, including belief in a Supreme Being, spirituality, worship service attendance, political preference, age, ethnicity and gender. The primary theoretical portion of the study utilized the Theory of Planned Behavior, in which MediaBuffs researchers customized established measurement scales to assess participant attitudes toward Susan G. Komen following the incident, as well as plans to avoid donating to them.

“By launching the survey so quickly, we were able to take the pulse of the American public while the subject was top-of-mind,” Drumheller said. “Using Facebook and Twitter to attract survey participants meant we were using the very same media that people were using to voice their comments about the matter.”

The results showed there to be no significant differences based on gender or age, indicating that the politicization of the issue was not viewed differently between men and women, nor by different age cohorts.

Significant differences were reported, though, along dimensions ranging from education level to various measures of religiosity. Among those with an undergraduate degree or higher, there were significantly lower intentions and plans to avoid donating to SGK than among those with less than an undergraduate education. These two groups, however, showed similar attitudes toward SGK.

Aspects of religiosity, though, uncovered many significant differences. For example, those who did not report believing in a Supreme Being had significantly lower attitudes toward, and significantly higher plans to avoid donating to, SGK. These results were echoed among those professing little or no spirituality versus moderate or high levels of spirituality, and frequent (once per week or more) versus infrequent worship service attendees.

Finally, political preference was examined with relation to these constructs, with those identifying as Republicans having significantly higher attitudes toward, and lower intentions and plans to avoid donating to, SGK than did those identifying as either Democratic, Independent or Libertarian.

“The results point to a very polarized general public,” Gerlich noted. “Furthermore, this polarization is one based primarily on political and religious preferences. It remains to be seen whether this division will last into the longer term,” he added. “For now, though, the results of our study help explain what is happening with regard to current donations and race participation.”

MediaBuffs is a consortium comprised of research principals Dr. Kristina Drumheller (Assistant Professor of Communication), and Dr. R. Nicholas Gerlich (Professor of Marketing and Department Head). Both are on the faculty at West Texas A&M University. They conduct academic and marketing research online at, as well as in the classroom and offsite for clients. They can also be found on Facebook and Twitter. Associates from WTAMU and other institutions join them on selected projects.

Dr “Race Ready” Gerlich


3 04 2012

It seems like not a month goes by without a company or organization getting into trouble thanks to social media. Let’s face it, we are paddling treacherous waters. Citizen journalism has given the microphone and printing press of the Fourth Estate to everyone with a smartphone.

And all we can do is pray that we don’t get a surprise boot to the rear. because if we do, it’s already too late for damage control.

Case in point: the beef industry and pink slime.

Earlier today I was interviewed by the Amarillo Globe-News about what has gone down in the last month over the beef filler that is otherwise known as Lean, Finely Textured Beef (LFTB). In the last week, three plants around the US have closed (650 jobs), and yesterday, AFA Foods filed for bankruptcy citing the pink slime scandal as having driven its sales south.

Prior to 1994, these beef scraps were used as pet food. But a method of disinfecting the beef was developed, as was the method of spinning it in a centrifuge to separate fat from lean meat. The USDA approved it for processing foods fit for human consumption. About a decade later, a Dr. Gerald Zirnstein coined the term “pink slime,” but it did not surface from internal documents until the New York Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2009, from whence the term slowly entered the lexicon.

Fast-forward to March 2012, and ABC News did a report on it. This quickly raised the ire of pop culture foodie icon Jaime Oliver.

And that was all it took. The social graph was instantly abuzz with viral pink slime. All major media outlets picked it up. And suddenly boycotts were launched. Mass hysteria ensued. School lunch programs instantly came under scrutiny. And retailers like Kroger and Safeway sought to right their own sinking ships by selling “Pink-Slime-Free” beef.

never mind that the beef industry has assured us that it’s all OK. After all, it is beef. It’s just that you could te3chnically toss a tail or hoof into the grinder and still call it beef. But people aren’t buying.

So what went wrong?

Simple. The industry was guilty of not providing full disclosure of its fillers, and not being transparent with its consuming public. Hiding behind the banner of “100% Beef” is a bit of misnomer when you consider that less than two decades ago we would have been feeding the very same stuff to our pets. Sure, there would have been some risk had the industry told us all back then that they were mixing in scraps of this nature. But that risk is far less than the damage that was inflicted by not saying anything.

The big takeaway from this fiasco is that all companies and organizations must be transparent in all things, and provide absolutely complete disclosure of everything in its foods or the processing thereof. Because once people find out you’ve been holding back, the big boot of citizen journalism will make a dent in your back side.

Sure, the beef industry will recover. This is not about avoiding beef in general. It is about the processors and retailers coming clean. Sure, we might have been upset when Lowe’s pulled its ads from All-American Muslim, or when Susan G. Komen pulled (and later returned) its funding to Planned Parenthood. You see, there’s a big difference. Beef is something you put in your mouth; the rest is just food for your brain.

And if we think too long about putting pink slime in our mouths, the gross-out factor is going to rule the day.

The beef industry could have avoided this had it not worked so hard to keep this little dirty secret. It matters not that no laws were broken. It doesn’s make a bit of difference that the little puff of ammonia used to disinfect the meat is harmless. The USDA can approve this stuff until the cows come home, but it ain’t gonna make a difference.

Because pink slime is gross.

And never midn the fact that there was delicious irony in that the AGN interviewed a vegetarian about the matter. My responses were not about avoiding meat in general, or stirring the PETA troops to action (for the record, I adamantly oppose PETA’s efforts). No, this was all about companies and organizations baring their souls for all to see. because in this era of citizen journalism, you will be found out. And once you are, you’re going to have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do. You owe it to your customers and constituents to tell the truth before the truth sets you back a few notches.

Dr “And That’s My Beef” Gerlich

What’s Hiding Inside

29 03 2012

They say that what you don’t know, can’t hurt you.

Balderdash. A pure lie. Because in this era of expected transparency, any food producer who does not willingly come clean with what they put in their food, will be found out. Exposed. Naked. And hung out to dry.

Like Starbucks and the info leak that the pink coloring in frappuccinos is made from beetles.

Eeewwww! gross!

This time the outrage is coming from vegans who feel deceived. Vegans by definition do not eat any product that is animal-based, including insects. No meat. No dairy. No eggs. And, apparently, no beetles.

As a vegetarian, I feel some of their pain. I routinely read every label of every item I purchase, but I also know that I cannot go into a restaurant’s kitchen to read their ingredients. There is some risk in coming out of the cave of dietary control, because you never really know what goes into the food you are eating.

But it is still in the best interests of food producers and providers to be forthcoming about these things. There are many people who refrain from things as a matter of conscience. And don’t forget those who have food allergies (wheat, corn, nuts, etc.), for whom eating the wrong thing can lead to catastrophic results.

Starbucks should have known that sooner or later, word would get out that it had started using beetles. Heck, they only started using them recently, in an effort to eliminate artificial ingredients. But while beetles may technically be all-natural, they do violate the dietary preferences of some. This information should be made available so that those affected can then choose more wisely.

McDonald’s was stung a few years ago when it was discovered (and they later admitted) that they actually coat their french fries in beef tallow before frying. That’s what gives their fries that distinctive taste. A hindu family took great umbrage over the deception and filed suit.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is nothing unethical about using beef tallow or beetles, but you do owe your customers the courtesy of being transparent. because if you don’t, you wind up being a headline in nearly every major media outlet.

And that, my friends, is not exactly an ingredient for positive PR.

Just yesterday I served on a panel reviewing a number of small Amarillo companies seeking development grants. One company is a consumer food producer. the representative glowed about how his product was “beef-based,” which threw me for a loop, because I had never before seen a product in this category that had beef as an invisible base ingredient. I asked to see the product label, and there it was (albeit in very small print): beef bouillion.

Again, I would catch this in a supermarket, because I do read all that fine print. But I did advise them that they should probably a little more forthcoming on the label. In fact, the fact it is beef-based could be a real advantage among the majority for whom consuming meat is not a problem. But imagine if I had given up meat for Lent, only to find out later I had eaten this product? I would be upset.

We live in very different times, one in which people avoid foods because of allergies, and others avoid them for personal, ethical, religious and/or health reasons. Given these differences among the eating public, it behooves every manufacturer and preparer to tell us everything.

Even if it has crushed beetles in it.

You know, I think I’ll just stick with my coffee. God knows I already accidentally ingest enough bugs as it is is while riding bikes out here. I just don’t want them in my beverage.

Dr “Feeling Buggy” Gerlich

Livin’ On A Prayer

22 10 2011

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…” (Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 25:35, NIV)

I’m not sure I have heard more powerful words. And while these words were spoken as part of a broader apocalyptic sermon often called The Sheep and the Goats, even when you strip away the artifacts of the theological system in which they are embedded, they are a message for all humankind. Read the rest of the passage. See for yourself.

And it is a message that all of us probably should try to wrap our minds around a little more. The Occupy Wall Street movement is garnering lots of mediaplay (right or wrong). Unemployment still hovers at 9% nationally. There is a growing disenfranchisement with the status quo (say hello to the 1960s again). And even though these words of Jesus may go against our grain of giving a fish when we think it might be better to teach the person to fish for themselves, we (and I am pointing at myself in the mirror) need to remember that some needs are here. Today. Now. This minute.

Which is why I am pleased to read about Soul Kitchen, the new donation-based restaurant launched by rocker Jon Bon Jovi in Red Bank NJ. If you can afford it, the suggested donation is $10. If not, give what you can (or nothing), and then be prepared to volunteer a little to work it off.

Hallelujah, and pass the fish and bread. This is an idea whose time has come.

Deli chain Panera has done similarly with a non-profit cafe in St. Louis. While it may be far more profitable to be giving fishing lessons, sometimes a fish is needed right this moment. Because hunger is a short-term problem with long-term implications.

Bon Jovi and his wife, Dorothea, are to be commended for launching Soul Kitchen. But my fear is that the place will be crowded with pop culture tourists intent on putting another notch on their belt buckle. “Yeah, we went to Soul Kitchen, and then went up to the City to sightsee. How was your vacation?” The over-priced $29 shirt would be pretty cool to own and show off. What about the hungry, though? Might they not even be able to get a table at the kitchen of charity?

So here’s an idea. Since the theme of the restaurant is about serving rather than being served, why don’t those who can afford to dine there pick up the tab for someone less fortunate? You know. Take someone less advantaged than you, and treat them to dinner. Or, in lieu of that, not only pay for your own meal, but pay double. In other words, pay it forward for someone you don’t even know. A stranger.

Because when the righteous to whom Jesus was speaking asked, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

But…but…but…you mean that in taking care of those around us, we took care of you?

Yeah, kinda.

This is an idea that rocks far more than any JBJ concert. And the message is a far harder pill to swallow than even people of the Christian faith are willing to confess (myself included). Because sometimes (there’s that mirror again) we find ourselves not only espousing the teach-them-to-fish line, but sometimes saying, “Teach yourself to fish.”

Something to think about as we approach Thanksgiving. Because giving thanks is a year-round thing, not just one day. And people are hungry several times a day. For those of us who can’t get away to New Jersey, there are plenty of other opportunities right where we live. Right where we are planted. Regardless of our belief systems. It’s the soul of the matter.

Dr “Take My Hand And We’ll Make It” Gerlich

Death By Food

14 10 2011

That the US has an obesity problem is not to be disputed. We love our food, and no matter how much we say we want to eat more healthily, we are more inclined to let our taste buds do the decision making for us. Besides, we only live once, right?

And we only die once, too.

Which is the perfect marketing formula for the Heart Attack Grill. If ever there were a restaurant at which one could throw caution to the wind, HAG is it. Its trademarked tagline, “Taste Worth Dying For,” may be for the prepositionally challenged, but it also works for those with a penchant for heart-unhealthy food. Or is that a death wish?

Food is served by hotties in skimpy nurse uniforms. An ambulance sits nearby. Patrons successfully finishing the Quadruple Bypass burger (yep, four patties) get rolled out in a wheelchair. Signs brag about lard, butter fat, cigarettes and 24oz cans of beer. This is no place for the faint of stomach. Or vegetarians.

The HAG is stridently defensive about its intellectual property. It refuses to franchise, and to date have only three locations (Chandler AZ, Dallas and Las Vegas). Furthermore, it has successfully defended its intellectual property rights in courts against companies seeking to copy the “medical” theme to their own chains. In other words, if the food doesn’t kill you, the company will if you ever try to steal their theme.

While I would never be caught dead there (in more ways than one), I have to give a high five to the HAG for latching onto a viable concept. HAG is wrong on so many levels, yet it has milked the cow of public relations more effectively than most. In a restaurant landscape crowded to the point of gridlock, HAG has found a way to makes its voice stand out. It has been featured in many print and broadcast features, and is following in the footsteps of The Big Texan in leveraging publicity. Bobby and Danny Lee are in the eatertainment business, and have turned an enormous steak into their calling card.

And Heart Attack Grill has done likewise with its massive monuments to masticating mistakes.

I doubt I’ll ever cross the threshold of this carnivorous shrine. I really doubt they would ever offer quadruple veggie burgers. That would be the antithesis of all things bad.

Which means I probably won’t ever find a salad bar either. Unless they can find a way to fry it in lard.

Dr “Heart Healthy” Gerlich

Extra Helping of PR

25 10 2010

It has been said there is no such thing as bad PR. Whenever anyone says anything about you in the public domain, it is priceless communication of your brand and who you are. Even if it’s bad. To begin to pay (as in advertise) for what one gets freely (via PR) would be cost prohibitive.

A local case in point is The Big Texan, Amarillo’s claim to gustatory fame. Their free 72oz. steak has been their calling card for decades, and media wags from around the world have made the journey to that faux old west barroom to chronicle this feast of flesh. No one really cares if the subject actually finishes it. It’s just the shock value of having all that meat and fixins covering the table in front of you.

Yeah, it makes for great TV and journalism.

Anymore it seems that for a restaurant to catapult a few levels skyward, it needs to get lucky and score some PR. With all the travel and death-defying food shows now airing, sooner or later some host is bound to land in your dining room with a film crew. And when they do, you’d better be ready to milk this cow for all it’s worth.

Kind of like the folks at Hash House A Go Go have done. I had the pleasure of dining at their west Las Vegas store this last weekend (they have 2 more shops in LV, plus the original in San Diego). Featured on the Travel Channel’s Man Vs. Food, Hash House is about ginormous portions of “twisted farm food” and putting a new face on traditional dining.

How’s that again?

One of the founding partners hails from Indiana (a place near and dear to my Midwest heart), where he adored the local down-to-earth cuisine. Hash House focuses on down-home menu items, but with a little more west coast flair and presentation than country fried graviness (yeah, I just made that up). Oh yeah, and did I mention the servings are as big as the desert is hot? (Check out this FB pic to see for yourself.)

Starting out with just breakfast and lunch, Hash House now serves three squares daily. With big-city-moderate pricing (most meals are $15-20), you are pretty much guaranteed to be toting a bag of leftovers. The meatloaf and eggs Benedict my former boss had would have been enough for all 6 of us. And I barely made it through my veggie plate (fried green tomatoes, butternut squash, corn-in-the-husk, asparagus and carrots). I heard tell of 14-inch diameter pancakes and “house hashes” on the breakfast menu that could carry a hungry farmer all the way through till supper (yeah, the evening meal is called “supper” in Indiana).

The food alone is enough to ensure Hash House’s success, but a huge push from cable TV is all was needed to launch them into gastronomic orbit. Toss in a New York Times article and a media hit list as long as my arm, and you have all the necessary ingredients for good old fashioned buzz.

Which is pretty much what I was feeling as I walked out of the place and headed back down to the Strip. That, and maybe the need for a good long nap.

Dr “Waist…Not!” Gerlich