If you watched the Super Bowl yesterday, you may have noticed a particular ad vying for your attention between plays. The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), a lobbying agency, made a commercial claiming that laxatives were used in plant-based meat.
The spot, which aired in the DC market, showed a spelling bee where a cute child had to try and spell “methylcellulose,” which the spelling bee guide defined as “a chemical laxative that is also used in synthetic meat.” A voiceover went on to say that meat alternatives contain dozens of chemical ingredients and “if you can’t spell or pronounce it then maybe you shouldn’t be eating it.”
The commercial is a clear swipe at plant-based meat companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, both of which are already battling naysayers (including chains like Chipotle) who claim their product is too processed or artificial.
But Impossible Foods at least didn’t take the challenge lying down. The alternative meat company clapped back by releasing a parody of the CCF’s ad. In it, another spelling be contestant has to spell a much simpler word: “poop.” The pronouncer, played by Impossible Foods’ CEO Pat Brown, defined it as the bacteria-filled stuff that “comes out of your butt” and is also “in ground beef we make from cows.”
A voiceover then goes on to state that out of 300 samples of ground beef tested by Consumer Reports in 2015, all of it contained fecal bacteria (even samples from grass-fed and organic cows). “Just because a kid can spell poop, doesn’t mean that you or your kids should be eating it,” the spot concludes.
This isn’t the first time that the CCF has thrown shade at meat alternatives. Just last week the group took out a full-page ad in The New York Times featuring two lists of ingredients. On the top it asked “Fake Meat or Dog Food: Which is Which?”
It’s also not the first time that Impossible Foods has taken a stand against alt-meat critics. Last May the startup published a strongly-worded rebuttal against an article claiming that plant-based meat contained weed killing chemicals.
It’s tempting to dismiss the CCF, which is a right-wing organization with a sketchy-at-best agenda, as biased extremism. The lobbying group is “supported by restaurants, food companies, and thousands of individual consumers,” and it seems safe to assume that at least some of those companies have a stake (steak?) in the meat industry. Of course they want to criticize plant-based meat any way they can — and an easy tactic is to frame it as synthetic, heavily processed, and “fake.”
Personally, I think yesterday’s commercial-off goes to show that when it comes to the fight for consumer’s protein choices, there are lots of ways to spin it. Yes, plant-based meat has more ingredients, including some unfamiliar ones. But just because you can’t pronounce them doesn’t mean they’re inherently bad for you. In fact, as CNET points out, methylcellulose is an ingredient that’s also used in baked goods and desserts, making it relatively innocuous.
Meat, on the other hand, has a very simple ingredient list. But there are plenty of unsavory aspects to the meat industry, including environmental costs and the whole eating-dead-animals thing. It goes to show just how critical a role that marketing will play in framing consumer perceptions of meat, both plant-based and traditional.
Yesterday’s commercial-off illustrates that criticism against plant-based meat is not going anywhere. In fact, the more that the alternative meat space grows in popularity, the more fire it will attract from beefy opponents. Impossible and others should be ready to weather the storm (and fight back), both on the advertising field and off.