Confirmation bias in research is a genuine problem. Some researchers set out to prove a hypothesis and interpret all information to match the conspiracy.

That’s the only interpretation I can put on a study led by Auckland University researchers aimed at investigating “the timing, nature and extent of COVID-washing on public social media accounts by New Zealand’s major food and drink brands in the initial stage of the pandemic after the first case was detected in New Zealand and when stay-at-home lockdown restrictions were in place”.

‘COVID-washing’, not a proper academic term, was deemed to have existed, and the academics were going discover some, come hell or high water.

The study covered five big brands in confectionery, snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, and fast-food restaurants, across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube from February to May last year. Academics trawled through posts and found 14 of 20 brands referenced COVID-19, with 27% of the 1,368 posts “COVID-19 themed”, dominated by fast-food companies.

The Food & Grocery Council doesn’t represent fast-food companies, so I’ll stick with examples of what the researchers said about our members.

For the record, our members, from Unilever and Coca-Cola, to Ferrero and others, went ‘dark’ with media campaigns during COVID. This made sense. When the country is at home anxious about a pandemic it would be inappropriate to have advertising showing happy people doing normal things. In some cases, companies donated airtime and booked slots to the Ministry for COVID messages. Others donated significant amounts of products to charities or made big cash donations to social agencies.

While the academics call this sort of thing “COVID-washing”, most people would view it as charitable giving and reasonable responses from businesses wanting to help local communities.

The examples picked out by the academics indicate their perceptions are out of step with society. Looking closely at the images and messages they’ve tagged with the emotive and insulting ‘COVID-washing’, it’s clear it was well-intentioned.

Among the themes were “We know these are challenging times for all of us …” (Lindt), while one applauded front-line workers with “The world is forever grateful to you for not having a break right now. #ThankYou” (KitKat, Nestle). One I thought was quite beautiful was from Whittaker’s that had white chocolate bars in the shape of a cross wishing heath workers well.

Other equally light-hearted single posts were for at-home activities.  Arnott’s posted recipes for home-made versions of their products, while Lewis Road published a colouring-in sheet of a cow. None of the posts from members listed are anything other than respectful and reasonable communication.

As if to give their breathless findings more weight, the academics gave ‘COVID-washing’ a formal definition: “the misappropriation of social concern about the pandemic in order to promote unhealthy products and build brand loyalty”.

This has been an attempt to create the impression of something that didn’t exist – food companies misappropriating pandemic concerns to capture Kiwis in vulnerable moments. That’s not what people in our membership were thinking and the suggestion is insulting to those who worked extremely hard and put themselves at risk to make sure shelves were refilled.

The fact is those companies have always gone out of their way to give back to their communities, and that’s what happened here. A few posts on Facebook reflecting what’s going on in the community and saying thanks to nurses and other health workers is not campaigning. It’s being in tune with real life. People in companies through their brands that have connections with Kiwis have the right to communicate with them to express their sympathy, empathy, and share their concerns.

And it wasn’t just about communicating with consumers, but demonstrating to their own people they were showing empathy with what was happening.

In the end, I believe most Kiwis see such messages in a positive light and accept the sentiment as being genuine. It’s a pity some try to interpret such activities in a darker light.

(originally published in FMCG Business magazine)

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