The Food Babe and Rob Schneider: When companies choose poorly

October-2014-Cover

It’s been a bad week for celebrity quacks; that is, after starting out looking as though it would be a good week. For example, as I discussed a couple of days ago, contender for the title of world’s most brain dead antivaccine conspiracy theorist, washed up comedian Rob Schneider, having somehow managed to land a gig resurrecting his 20 year old “Richmeister” character (a.k.a. the “Makin’ Copies Guy”) in the service of an ad campaign for State Farm Insurance, found his ad dropped like the proverbial Ebola-laced bedding when State Farm was made aware of Schneider’s virulently antivaccine views. It took a few days of social media pressure, but in the end, State Farm did the right thing. After all, from a strictly mercenary standpoint, does a company that sells, among other insurance products, health insurance want to be associated with a pitchman whose extreme antivaccine views are inimical to the business and message of any company selling health insurance? Then, of course, there’s the standpoint of society, and definitely using such a person without any consideration of the message he sends is not good for public health.

Then there’s Vani Hari, a.k.a., the “Food Babe.” I’ve written about the Food Babe several times before. Basically, she’s a one trick pony, with one modus operandi. In essence, in her utter ignorance of basic chemistry, she finds chemicals with scary-sounding names in foods and beverages. Once such chemicals are located, she uses their scary, scientific names to whip up a frenzy of outrage among her “Food Babe Army.” She then channels that ignorant outrage, directing it at food companies, in order to get them to remove that scary sounding chemical regardless of whether or not there is any science to suggest that the chemical is in any way harmful or dangerous. She’s done this so many times now that a term has been coined for it: Quackmail. It’s a perfect encapsulation of just how the Food Babe operates. She’s done it to Subway over what she ignorantly or disingenuously (or both) called the “yoga mat chemical” in its bread.

She’s done it to beer brewers over a number of scary sounding chemicals, in particular a hilariously dumb misunderstanding of chemistry that led her to confuse propylene glycol with propylene glycol alginate, even though the two chemicals are very different, and propylene glycol alginate is derived from kelp. She’s also pulled what I now like to call argumentum ad ickium (or an appeal to ickiness). Actually, I originally referred to it more as an appeal to “yuckiness,” but I just thought of argumentum ad ickium last night, and I like the term better. On the other hand, it does sound too much like David Icke; so maybe argumentum ad yuckium would still be a better term. Be that as it may, that’s basically what the Food Babe did when she demonized isinglass, which is basically gelatin derived from the swim bladder of a fish and a substance that has been used by beer brewers since the 19th century to accelerate the removal of yeast byproducts and other solids from the beer. But it’s icky (even though it’s not a urinary bladder, but rather a bladder that fills with air); so it scares the Food Babe, and she assumes it must be bad for you. It was for this latter incident that the term quackmail appears to have been coined. More recently, her success seemed to have stalled, with Starbucks being less than receptive to her quackmail with respect to its pumpkin spice latte.

So, not surprisingly, a lot of people were none too pleased when the cover story for the October issue of Experience Life (EL), a magazine that bills itself as the “no gimmicks, no hype health and fitness magazine,” was a fawning interview with Vani Hari (which you can read), complete with a fawning “behind the scenes” video (whose accompanying article you can’t read without a subscription, which is no big loss):

Here we hear Hari’s story, in which she claims to have been sick all her life, culminating in a bout of appendicitis requiring appendectomy. After that, she claims to have cured herself of asthma and allergies and weaned herself from six to eight prescription drugs she had been taking in her 20s. To get an idea of just how bad and credulous this coverage is, get a load of this excerpt from EL’s interview with Hari:

Her chief expertise — from her days on the high school debate team and her corporate consulting career — lies in her ability to research, analyze, and fight for a cause. In this case, the cause is “food as a basic human right,” she says.

Of course, her ability to “research” is devoid of science or even minimal knowledge of chemistry and consists mainly of poring through lists of food ingredients to find scary chemical names, which she then Googles to cherry pick claims that can be used to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD), ignoring all the usually copious evidence that these chemicals and ingredients are safe, as well as the valid reasons there are for using them. Her skills at “analysis” consist of determining the best way to use these terms to whip up hysteria in her “Food Babe Army,” the better to aim their ignorant fury at whatever target she in her self-righteousness perceives to be endangering the health and well-being of America.

More accurate is a recent article about Hari by Duane Stanford entitled, Food Babe’s Ingredient Attacks Draw ‘Quackmail’ Backlash. In particular, she views herself as a scientist, but is utterly incapable of answering reasonable criticism or to think on her feet. I suppose this isn’t too surprising about a woman whose rule about food ingredients is, “When you look at the ingredients [in food], if you can’t spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it,” which is painfully dumb. In any case, here’s what I mean:

After a friendly introduction and a clip of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart spoofing Subway’s yoga mat bread, the public radio host says: “Now, you are not a scientist.”

“Well, I’m a computer scientist, so I had to take a lot of engineering courses for that,” says Hari, with an awkward laugh. He bores in. “But you are not a food scientist. You’re not a chemist. You’re not a scientist in that aspect.” Then he quotes an editorial, in which a Yale School of Medicine neurologist calls the Subway claims “the worst example of pseudo-scientific fear-mongering I have seen in a while.”

Hari’s feet fidget under the desk. When the host asks if she bullied Subway into action, her voice cracks.

“Actually, the only person that’s bullying anyone here is Subway, by telling us we’re eating fresh,” she says.

Hilarious. She thinks that being a computer scientist is the same thing as being a chemist. (It’s all science, right? Wrong.) No wonder there have been spawned so many pro-science parody versions of the Food Babe, including Chow Babe (my favorite), Science Babe, and the Food Hunk. Also, that Yale School of Medicine neurologist, in case you hadn’t already guessed, is Steve Novella. Unfortunately, we also learn just what we skeptics are up against:

FoodBabe.com attracts between 2.5 million and 4 million unique visitors a month, according to Hari. Comscore estimates Hari’s July web and mobile audience at 795,000 unique visitors in July. That compares to almost 14 million visits for Starbucks’ multiple web sites and mobile apps. Discrepancies aside — due to imperfect and complex measurement systems — Comscore’s data shows Hari’s monthly audience, dominated by women, has quadrupled in the past year with peaks and valleys along the way. It hit a peak in February and March, when she targeted Subway. New investigations predictably spike traffic.

The investigations drive readers to Hari’s Monthly Eating Guide, which she says is her primary source of revenue. For $17.99 a month, customers can download a full-color Food Babe Starter guide that teaches them about “organic living from the inside out.” The 38-page booklet lists “9 nasty ingredients to avoid,” tips on avoiding genetically modified organisms and advice on navigating restaurants.

As I put it before when discussing Hari: And she thinks we skeptics who criticize her are in it for the money? I mean, seriously:

Hari is just getting started. She has signed with a production company to create her own TV show and she’ll publish a book called “The Food Babe Way” in February detailing her journey and philosophy. Maintaining a business means the investigations have to keep coming. Inevitably, they will also have to get bolder. That means the retorts are sure to get louder and more hostile, too.

Rats. I predicted that Hari would be on TV soon, and unfortunately my prediction appears to have been correct.

In any case, not surprisingly, there was a backlash against EL when it featured Hari and her “Food Babe” empire as its cover story for the October issue. It’s understandable. For a magazine that claims to be about “no gimmicks” and “no hype,” featuring someone like the Food Babe, who is all about gimmicks and hype, on its cover seemed a bit out of sync with the magazine’s self-proclaimed image and mission, to say the least. I’ve never read EL before; so I have no idea whether it is prone to woo, but the reaction of its readers seems to argue that at least a significant minority of its readers are part of the reality-based community.

Now, I contrast the reaction of EL’s publishers to the criticism over their decision to feature Hari on their magazine’s cover with how State Farm reacted. After all, I once compared the Food Babe to antivaccine activist Jenny McCarthy, because they are about equally grounded in science, although these days the Food Babe seems better at self-promotion that Jenny McCarthy has been. Given that Rob Schneider seems to want to match or exceed Jenny McCarthy as a celebrity antivaccine activists spouting pseudoscience, comparing the Food Babe to Schneider seems appropriate, and comparing the reaction of EL to criticism also seems appropriate.

So, to recap, State Farm soaked in the criticism for a few days, and then it acted decisively. It dumped Rob Schneider’s commercial because it didn’t want to be associated with his dangerously antiscience message. EL, in contrast, went full mental jacket on its own readers:

Vani Hari – aka Food Babe – caused quite a riot on Facebook this week when Experience Life Magazine put her on the cover of its October issue. When faced with heavy criticism from readers about the magazine’s cover selection, Experience Life Magazine stated on Facebook that the comments are coming from “an industry-coordinated response — one designed to appear as though it is coming from individual consumers, but that is motivated and subsidized by a behind-the-scenes special interest.”

Here’s the actual Facebook post:

And, in case EL decides to delete it, here’s the full text preserved for posterity (such as it is) here at RI:

Over the weekend, we received an usually large influx of negative Facebook comments regarding our October cover subject, Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe). As a whole, these comments bear the earmarks of an industry-coordinated response — one designed to appear as though it is coming from individual consumers, but that is motivated and subsidized by a behind-the-scenes special interest. You can learn more about this phenomenon here: http://bit.ly/1rjdwNL.

In the meantime, we thank you for your patience and understanding.

Way to go full-on conspiracy mongering, EL! Of course, my only disappointment is that I haven’t been tarred by the anti-GMO Center for Food Safety as a food industry or pharma shill. I do so love demonstrating that I am no such thing. I do question, however, whether it’s a good idea to label your readers and other concerned citizens who complained as being somehow thralls of industry. It doesn’t strike me as a winning strategy to win friends and influence people unless the friends you want to win and the people you want to influence are conspiracy theorists and quacks. Indeed, a perusal of EL’s Facebook page indicates that many are still taking EL to task for accusing those who complained of being shills. No wonder it infuriated readers, who retorted with comments like, “This is the kind of response I would expect from ‘The Weekly World News.’ You are manufacturing a conspiracy because your chosen ‘expert’ doesn’t understand her topic of professed expertise. You can make this right by admitting a mistake or you can further indulge in this conspiratorial fantasy.” It’s getting so bad that marketing blogs like Tunheim are starting to take notice of EL’s reaction as a textbook example of how to create a social media crisis in response to criticism that will cause a long term problem for the magazine. That’s even leaving aside how EL has promoted quackery and pseudoscience by credulously featuring the Food Babe as its October cover story.

As Molly Gregas, PhD put it:

“Food Babe on the cover of a health and lifestyle magazine brings up two issues,” said Molly Gregas, Ph.D., in an online interview with Guardian Liberty Voice. Gregas is a research communication specialist and a freelance science literature editor in Toronto, Ontario. “First, the pseudoscience and misinformation that Food Babe preaches that is not grounded in fact or scientific knowledge; her material takes advantage of many people’s lack of scientific knowledge and preys on their fears.

“Second – and most important – is the more broad-based problem of information literacy,” Gregas emphasized. “We live in a time that is rich in sheer volume of information, but much of that information is of poor quality. The ability to evaluate sources of information and validate them or discard them based on critical thinking ability is a crucial skill for all citizens and consumers in today’s society. The Food Babe actively undermines information literacy by encouraging people to react emotionally based on inflammatory rhetoric and by avoiding follow-up questions and fact-checking against easily available primary sources. People want to be able to make good decisions for themselves and for their families, but one can’t make good decisions with bad information. Food Babe is a source of bad information, and by placing her on their cover, Experience Life has run up against the risk of alienating their readers.”

If there is any justice in the world, EL will pay a price for its decision to endorse the Food Babe’s pseudoscientific activism. Or it could always go full Alex Jones and go after that demographic. Let’s just put it this way. When you start to sound like antivaccine diva reporter Sharyl Attkisson after Rob Schneider’s ad was dropped by State Farm, you might want to rethink your PR strategy:

Ditto if you start sounding like Age of Autism ranting about “State Pharm” in the wake of State Farm’s decision to nix its commercials featuring Rob Schneider.

EL might find, however, that the appeal of New World Order conspiracy mongering and promotion of quackery is a bit more—shall we say?—limited than the appeal of straightforward health and fitness stories.

RSCHNEIDER

There’s one final issue, as well. As vile as I find EL’s use of the Food Babe on its cover to sell magazines and stir controversy, I do not question that EL has every right to do so. It’s free speech. So is my harsh criticism of the editors of EL for having made that choice. Similarly, State Farm had every right to choose to use Rob Schneider as a pitchman for its insurance, just as I and critics of Rob Schneider had every right to criticize State Farm for its decision. Cranks, however, frequently get the concept of free speech wrong.

Enter Rob Schneider again. Take it away, Rob:

No. Not quite. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences due to that speech. In the US, all it means is that the government can’t suppress what we say. It doesn’t mean that private companies have to allow cranks who represent them to say whatever they want. Nor are people exercising their freedom of speech to complain to companies who make bad mistakes in choosing their pitchmen or deciding whom to feature on the cover of their magazine “suppressing” the free speech of cranks, and labeling them as being shills is a painfully transparent ploy to poison the well, as I’ve described many times since I first coined the term “pharma shill gambit” nine years ago. It’s an obvious ad hominem attack designed to poison the well. In the end, unfortunately, cranks like the Food Babe, Rob Schneider, and apparently now the editors of EL like free speech, as long as it’s speech they agree with. Criticism, they don’t like so much.

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