How can marketers combat moral opposition to genetically modified foods?

If you have consumed a soft drink or eaten a bag of chips, then you have consumed genetically modified (GM) foods. Derived from crops that were bioengineered to resist herbicides and pests, these consumables have been on grocery store shelves for decades. But in recent years, the public has become increasingly vocal and concerned.

Schulich School of Business PhD student Sean Hingston wanted to know why GM foods are taboo to some consumers. Under the supervision of Professor Theodore Noseworthy, Canada Research Chair in Entrepreneurial Innovation and the Public Good, and armed with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, he set out to answer this question.

The GM food labelling debate has heated up in recent years

Hingston and Noseworthy found that if consumers view the GM food as man-made, and if they understand why it was created, then moral opposition to the product diminishes. Under these circumstances, customers then perceive the GM food’s functional benefits (e.g., it is healthier or does not require pesticides), which subsequently increases the potential of consumers to buy the product.

From left: Sean Hingston and Theodore Noseworthy

“Our results suggest that marketers can use packaging and promotion strategies to cue consumers to view the GM food for what it is  a man-made object. This will have major implications for the current GM food labelling debate,” Hingston said.

The results of this research were published in the Journal of Marketing (2018).

Consumers believe natural = good

The GM food labelling debate has heated up in recent years. It is centered around the question of whether labels should explicitly indicate whether a product contains a genetically modified organism (GMO).

Hingston and Noseworthy’s contribution to the discussion, however, centres around how to best market GM foods, given the fact that some consumers oppose these foods on principle.

Tested hypothesis in four studies

The researchers began with one basic assumption: Moral opposition to GM food is based on the belief that these food products ought to be natural. Generally speaking, people believe that natural is good and right, while unnatural is bad and wrong. Simply labelling a product as “all natural” will attract consumers – this was established by earlier research.

Earlier research determined that labelling a product as “all natural” attracts consumers

Next, the researchers developed a hypothesis for why the distinction between man-made objects and naturally occurring objects is critical in determining how consumers will respond to GM foods.

Here, they predicted how evaluations of a GM food will differ depending on the cues that marketers adopt when promoting it. They hypothesized that promoting a GM food as a man-made product could reduce moral opposition and change how potential consumers look at the product, helping consumers to perceive the product’s functional benefits.

The team tested their hypotheses in four studies, summarized in the table below:

Study Objective Key Finding
1. A new products lab study To test whether the way a genetically modified organism, fruit in this case, is positioned influences consumers’ preference. People disliked a GM-labelled fruit relative to a natural fruit, but only when the fruit was promoted with natural imagery. When positioned as a man-made product, the negative effects disappeared, and consumers were more accepting of the GM-labelled food.
2. A controlled field experiment (in a farmers’ market) To explore consumers’ preference. Something as subtle as changing the fruit’s colour to look man-made led to the same findings. It was also determined that an elevated preference to buying GM-labelled food corresponded with a decrease in moral opposition.
3. A representative consumer panel To adopt a more indirect means of cuing consumers to think about the product as either natural or man-made. The decline in moral opposition to the GM-labelled food product led consumers to better perceived the product’s functional benefits, which then led to increased purchase intentions.
4. A naturalistic field experiment To test the assumption that the moral response to genetic modification is not activated when there is a man-made cue. Consumers are more likely to try a GM-labelled food product when they view it as man-made before learning that it is genetically modified.
Stimuli used in Study 1. Top: All-natural labelled, natural cue, intent absent. Bottom: GM-labelled, man-made cue, intent present

Researchers discovered moral opposition can be reduced

This research demonstrates that transparent GMO labelling policies can be advantageous for firms selling these products, as long as they present the product as man-made, which overrides consumers’ moral barriers. By doing this, marketers can help potential consumers change their minds about GM foods under certain circumstances.

To read the Journal of Marketing article, visit the website. To learn more about Theodore Noseworthy, visit his faculty profile page.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,