Genetically Modified Word Choice

Non GMO project verifiedJust outside Burlington, Vermont is a small grocery store called Natural Living. Most of the foods they carry are not genetically modified. They make it clear which these are with “Non-GMO Project” labels.

Now a Trader Joe’s is opening next door, and some of the local foodies and GMO conscious folk are concerned. Although Trader Joe’s also has labeling for their products, they use the much less restrictive “GMO-free” labeling. GMO-free is defined by the FDA as any (even genetically modified) food that does not have a “significantly different nutritional property” from the original item.

It may not matter from a nutritional standpoint, but word choice matters.

Why Bother Differentiating?

Some would argue that the difference between “GMO-free” and “Non-GMO Project” is minor. The FDA says foods labeled “GMO-free” are safe to eat. Yet the label is misleading. Those foods may still be genetically modified.

For content strategists, it’s the word choice that is significant. When we label something “free” that is not actually free, we take away the word’s power.

We can take pride in ensuring that a PC user downloads the PC-friendly option. And we help clarify which button the end-user ought to click in order to “learn more.” When it comes to food labels, somewhere there is a content strategist who can proudly say that users with peanut allergies are safer, thanks to their warning label.

But marketing text is not the same as help text. So content creators make choices.

Modifying for Marketing

Tylenol is marketed as “gentle on little tummies.” They purposely don’t remind end-users that a Tylenol overdose might cause liver damage. Tylenol wants to make a profit, and promising pain relief is more compelling than liver damage warnings.

And every start-up knows (as The Guilt Trip recently popularized) that your product must sound like it’s the best and most exciting. Marketing doesn’t make a company evil. It makes a company successful.

End-users won’t purchase a pain reliever that could significantly improve their lives, unless it’s marketed as “the best.” And Tylenol helps millions of people who might never try it if they know there is a tiny chance of liver damage. Marketing is helping these people, as well as making money for Tylonel.

Word Choice Matters

As content strategists, that means we have two seemingly contradictory goals.

  1. Convince end-users to purchase our product. After all, we know it will improve their lives.
  2. Protect end-users by being completely honest with them. This means providing them with all of the information.

The content strategists at Tylenol focused (very successfully) on goal #1. Mike Moneiro might say they did so at the expense of being ethically responsible. The content strategists at Trader Joe’s are making a similar decision. They have modified the second goal.

“Protect end-users by being honest with them. This means providing them with the necessary information.”

Trader Joe’s made the decision not to tell shoppers about all foods that include GMOs. Perhaps they made this decision because not all genetically modifications significantly alter the food being produced. They may have determined this was a better way of protecting end-users.

How will you Modify Your Word Choice?

The ethics behind marketing are complex. So are the ethical responsibilities of the content strategist. Where to draw that line will depend on each individual content strategist.

I just hope we all keep asking the questions.

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