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Stonyfield: The spark that started the manipulative ad fight

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Believe or not, it’s been about six months since Stonyfield Organic found itself in the middle of a public relations nightmare.

It started when the company shared a video on its Facebook page of children reacting to the question “What is a GMO?” The children’s responses were varied, but all negative. But the message was clear: GMOs are not something any of us want to consume.

The reaction was not what Stonyfield expected. Instead of people praising the company for the marketing, the post was inundated with comments ranging from the disappointed to the furious. There was general disappointment that Stonyfield would manipulate and scare children for the sake of a promotional video, regardless of how one felt about GMOs.

Stonyfield was all teed up for a really great moment. Would they take this opportunity to bridge gaps, extend an olive branch, and maybe heal some hurt feelings? Nope. Instead, the company took out the ban hammer and silenced anyone who disagreed the video was awesome. Stonyfield then took it one step further with a follow-up post claiming that the dissenters were “trolls” and doubling down on the anti-GMO rhetoric.

What happened next was nothing short of inspiring. A Facebook group called “Banned by Stonyfield” popped up and the membership quickly swelled to nearly 1,000 (it’s name has since changed to The Banned Consumer). Many of the members stated they would not longer purchase any Stonyfield products because of the video, including one mom whose kids loved their yogurt. Kasey Morrisey penned an open letter to Stonyfield’s executive board which stated, in part: “It is disappointing when the opportunity to speak up is blunted, and when the social aspect of social media is rejected.”

The movement went on to inspire a SciMom comic and the group went on to have an impact on several other non-GMO marketing gimmicks. Members of the group continue to use the platform to discuss modern agriculture, marketing campaigns, and occasionally a company acting badly.

I asked Kasey what she was feeling when she took the time to write that open letter.

“I’ve never done any public-facing writing before,” she said. “Drafting that letter to Stonyfield from the pro-science public was really invigorating.”

While Stonyfield never apologized for its actions, the moment marked a shift in consumer perceptions. “I think the outcry about Stonyfield’s video shows that at least some consumers won’t accept manipulative advertising,” said Anastasia Bodnar, a science advocate writing as Genetic Maize. “Food companies should be genuine in their advertising, demonstrating what makes their products special. Talking down to consumers or lying about competitors is simply not a good look.”

There was a shift, even if it was subtle. Five years ago, such an outcry against an organic company for shamelessly promoting such a video was unheard of. But now, consumers were motivated and ready to say something. Stonyfield never saw any of it coming.

So, will Stonyfield have a long term effect? Possibly.

“Our goal is to help the public to stop fearing their food,” said Adam Van Zalinge, who helps run the Banned by Stonyfield group. “We can’t have people skipping whole foods because they have no faith in our agricultural system. It is definitely an uphill battle for us.”

Thank you for your efforts, and keep up the good fight!

 

Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.

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