Monsanto tackles a sceptical public

Genetically modified soya producer Monsanto has hired BBH for a possible advocacy campaign, but it risks opening the eyes of the public to issues which it had not been too bothered about – until now.

Using advertising to reassure a worried consumer is one thing. Planting fears that were never there in the first place is another.

This is the dilemma facing Monsanto, the US manufacturer of genetically modified (GM) soya beans, which has been accused by furious environmentalists of infiltrating our food with its unholy beans.

Last week Marketing Week exclusively revealed that Monsanto had appointed ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty to run a possible advocacy campaign. The move follows a spate of critical press reports and a number of publicity stunts by green activists who oppose its methods.

Monsanto’s scientists have engineered a soya plant which is resistant to one of its own herbicides, called Roundup, which means farmers can spray their fields and kill all the weeds without damaging the soya crop. Soya is found in one form or another in about 60 per cent of all the food on supermarket shelves – bread, cakes, baby foods, chocolate, soups and so on.

Whether genetically modified foods are a good thing or not has yet to be proved. But the US Government’s Food & Drink Administration has approved genetically modified soya as safe and nutritious, and this is not disputed by UK retailers. But they have avoided taking a stance on the perceived benefits or risks associated with GM foods, had lobbied hard for meaningful product labelling, so consumers can decide if they want to eat food which contains it.

Yet last summer, the US agribusiness effectively steamrollered the retailers and aggressively forced through the first harvest containing two per cent of GM soya. From the beginning, Monsanto has insisted it is physically impossible to separate growth and distribution of the engineered soya (expected to be about 15 per cent of this year’s harvest) from the conventional crop. Now consumers have no way of knowing which products on the supermarket shelves contain traces of the soya and which don’t.

Rupert Hodges of the British Retail Consortium says: “There is a feeling that the US agribusiness could have handled it better with the European retailers.”

He says the best hope for the anti-GM lobby is that the European Commission is preparing to introduce labelling regulations which say products “may contain” GM food – a vague compromise which will not please the retailers.

The resulting anger at Monsanto’s seemingly arrogant attitude from an unusual alliance of retailers, consumer groups and lobbyists such as Greenpeace, spilled over into a number of negative press articles and is one reason why Monsanto has turned to an advertising agency for help.

Tom McDermott, head of European public relations for Monsanto, who is leading the project, says: “The large amount of news coverage has created the need for more information. The average consumer has not made his or her mind up about biotechnology.

“Nobody has ever tried to talk to the public about biotechnology before. It’s not like trying to sell a new washing powder. We don’t have the history. We don’t have the experience.

“It would have been a good thing to have done a couple of years ago. We should have been more active much sooner.”

BBH has been appointed for the depth of its strategic thinking, according to McDermott – together with a US research company. They will work on a four-month project to determine what are the most appealing messages about biotechnology – why it’s safe, how it enables more food to be produced for a growing population; what are the best means of delivering those messages (perhaps posters, print, TV or direct mail); and finally, if advertising is suitable at all.

Monsanto is acutely aware that reassurance has its limits – and its pitfalls. If an advertising campaign designed to reassure alerts consumers to worrying issues they hadn’t even thought about, why bother?

An insider says: “Monsanto is treading carefully. It is very sensitive to that issue. It doesn’t have enough knowledge or confidence yet to make a decision on whether to go ahead with any sort of campaign.”

The company is still open to the possibility that a grassroots public relations campaign, aimed at academics, trade associations, medics, journalists or even teachers, could be a more suitable option than an advertising push.

Monsanto has appointed EURO RSCG-Babinet Erra Tong Cuong in Paris and is about to appoint an agency in Germany to investigate running a consumer campaign. The company is understood to have been in talks with other biotechnology businesses about a joint campaign, and creating some sort of trade “alliance” to endorse the ads.

One industry source says: “Monsanto is also worried that labelling of some sort will happen. This will cause a problem if it alarms the consumer when it appears. It has to prepare the ground a bit.

“Monsanto has ‘bet the shop’ on GM products. It sees them as the future – as the world’s population grows and needs more food, there will be more and more pressure to use GM crops. Monsanto could do very well.”

This month Monsanto spun off its chemical interests as a separate company called Solutia, and is renaming what is left as Monsanto Life Sciences. This covers pharmaceuticals, food ingredients such as Nutrasweet and Canderel, crop production products such as herbicides, seed companies and agricultural biotechnology. Observers suggest this latter division could also be spun off in time, as its global importance grows.

The US agribusiness has been accused of calling the good name of biotechnology into question with its high-handed attitude, spoiling the careful fostering of consumer trust by the retailers, which went to great lengths to label non-commodity GM products such as tomato puree made from genetically engineered fruit, and cheese made with genetically engineered enzymes.

With countless other GM products waiting in the wings, and new labelling on the horizon, which will bring the issue into the open again, Monsanto’s best hope is that consumer prejudices against biotechnology and the spectre of nasty chemical companies cloning living organisms are not too heavily entrenched.

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