Media: Altering our genetic cynicism

Pitch: A PR man and an advertising agent outline a campaign to convince us that our fears about geneticall y modified food are unfounded
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The Independent Culture
Nick Band, chief executive, PR firm, Band and Brown

Monsanto, in particular, made two big mistakes when they launched into the UK market. First, they didn't do their research properly into the psyche of the British consumer and the British media; if they had, they would have discovered that, as a nation, we're suspicious and cynical, and keen to support the small guy in any David and Goliath struggle - such as the farmer in Devon whose crops were destroyed. And they compounded that with their second mistake, which was to advertise.

That just reconfirmed the idea that this American giant had come over here to buy its way into the media, almost, and into our hearts and minds. And the way it was done, with an almost editorial message from Monsanto, rather than a creative ad, played right into the hands of the suspicious Brits. So what should they do, other than panic and go home?

I'd advise that they:

1) Pull the advertising, and wait at least a couple of years.

2) Start to change the language used in referring to the products. That would mean a ban on the words "genetic" and "modified" - perhaps in favour of "biotechnically enhanced". And I'd move away from talking about "food", which is something that you eat, towards talking about "crops", something that is grown.

3) Talk about the concept of the new agricultural revolution, and try to generate as much excitement about that as there is about the Internet. Talk to journalists and generate editorial coverage. In 50 years, the world's population will double to 10 billion - and you've got to take the debate away from the genetically altered ear of corn and put it in a wider global context - and say, "The world is going to starve unless we do something about it now."

4) Say that genetic modification is nothing new. Gardeners have enjoyed the benefits of crossbreeding roses for decades. And after all, what is a mule? It's a cross between an ass and a horse. Introduce the idea that we've been doing it for years.

5) Start to identify and mobilise allies. Far too many people spend too much time defending themselves against lobby groups, rather than going out and finding people to support them. Perhaps less time wrapped up with Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and consumer groups and more time talking to the Government, farmers (who are going to be the main beneficiaries of all this) and aid agencies such as Oxfam or Action Aid - people involved in feeding the planet. And later, I would suggest making a large, visible donation.

6) Brief and convince teachers and doctors to spread the good word to their respective captive audiences. I'd try to negotiate with the editor of Doctor magazine to run an interview with, say, the chairman of Monsanto.

7) Sponsor a huge Agricultural Revolution exhibition in the centre of London, to get across the idea that genetically modified food is part of a revolution. Make it a fun event - a bit like the Millennium Project.

Barry Cook, managing director, DMB&B

I think this is a good opportunity for PR and advertising to work hand in hand. This is a mass audience issue now - and PR can take on some of the issues with pressure groups, politicians and the food trade.

A real concern has built up, post-BSE, that nasty people are messing about with our food, tampering with God's natural law, increasing their profits at the expense of our children's health. And that's characterised by consumer suspicion and confusion.

Advertising needs to:

1) Communicate with the target audience who are going to be buying these products in supermarkets. It should be a high-profile campaign, so we would be talking television.

2)A company like Monsanto must turn people from being concerned, negative or indifferent into positive advocates. It needs to provide a knockout consumer punch, and move people from saying "I'm really worried about this" to saying "I think it's a good idea". Anything else is a waste of money. You need to provide two pieces of evidence for the consumer. One is that genetically modified food provides huge benefits - your bananas won't go brown as quickly, for example - and the second is that there is absolutely, categorically, no downside. If you can't provide this evidence, don't spend the money on advertising.

2) Dispassionately display the information in the context of what consumers come into contact with - the fruit and vegetables themselves, the stuff you buy and eat. I don't see it as a men-in-white-coats, "scientists have proven" kind of campaign, because the public reaction is usually not to believe that. It's about getting under the skin of consumers and finding out what their concerns are. This issue is about food and food quality, so advertising needs to come across as food advertising, not as biotechnology advertising. It needs to give you the same reassurance that a Sainsbury or Hovis campaign gives you.

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