Perception, whether true or not, often makes a bigger impression on public confidence—or lack of it—than any accumulation of certifiable facts can achieve.
Politicians—of all party affiliations—depend on this phenomenon, strewing the airwaves with innuendo, half-truths and rumors that tend to stick and influence public opinion long after—or in spite of—being proved fallacious, fictitious or just flat-out wrong. The impression lingers, true or not.
The same result follows false or misleading claims against a food product. Two recent examples come to mind.
Lean, finely textured beef has been vilified in the media following news reports and video footage showing the product being processed and used in ground beef. After it was dubbed “pink slime” one could almost hear the collective “yuck” from consumers. Who wants to eat pink slime?
The reaction was as swift as it was undeserved. A food product with no failing other than having been labeled with the derogatory term “slime” was suddenly a public health threat. Products were pulled from shelves and retailers and fast-food brands pledged to discontinue using any product that contained “pink slime.”
Plants shut down; folks lost jobs; local economies suffered—all because of perception. No one has yet, to my knowledge, presented one fact that showed lean, finely textured beef to be in any way unsafe. Fact, apparently, matters little. Pink slime made good visual television news; it made for provocative headlines; it gave the radical food critics a new target.
And it was all based on the perception that because the process of producing lean, finely textured beef was perhaps a bit unpleasant to watch and the product seemed a bit pink and squishy looking, it was not healthy.
Even with all the contradictory information that has come out following the media frenzy, the stigma remains and one can only guess when or if the product will be accepted again.
Just a week or so ago, another report came out claiming that sugar is “poison.” I’ll be the first to admit that too much sugar in one’s diet is not healthy. I have a bit of a sweet tooth and if my freezer contained ice cream at all times I would be an unhealthy person. I like chocolate candy, cakes, pies and sugar in my corn flakes. I drink mostly diet sodas—and I do that in spite of the claims that artificial sweeteners are also bad for me.
I understand that if I eat too much sugar I’ll gain weight and jeopardize my health. I suppose if I eat too much broccoli I could jeopardize my health. I can assume that if I eat too much of anything I can suffer some unpleasant consequence—from flatulence to fatality.
They key there is “too much.”
Too much sugar, I’m convinced, is bad for me. But I’m an adult. I can read. I understand most of what folks tell me about the foods I eat, and I occasionally read labels and select more healthy choices when I go grocery shopping. I probably don’t eat as much fruit and vegetables as I should. I could lose a few pounds. I could cut back on sugar, and it would not hurt.
But poison? I’m thinking someone is trying to sell a book or get more airtime on morning talk shows. I’m also thinking that the message they carry, true or not, misinformation or not, will influence consumers’ decisions.
Pink slime. Poison. Word choices, as those of us who write for a living understand, can turn rumor into perception. And perception—true or not—assumes the mantle of truth.