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Dan Murphy: The Novelty Effect

Why the ‘boom’ in consumer trial of alt-meat shamburgers and chicken? A new market analysis IDs the real reason: It’s all about the urge to try something new and different, if not better.

Of all the poorly worded attempts to capture the “buzz” associated with the ongoing media salivation over the alt-meat meat category’s latest introductions, few surpass this one from the website

“Most coverage of the rollout of meatless fast-food burgers like Burger King’s Impossible Whopper and White Castle’s Impossible Sliders pegs them as a long-awaited drive-thru option for vegans.”

First of all, about the last thing that Overweight Nation needs is another drive-thru anything.

Second, five minutes hanging around any BK restaurant observing who was ordering Impossible Whoppers would have confirmed for even the most clueless of market researchers that vegans were NOT well-represented among the patrons choosing the chain’s latest introduction.

But leave it to a bunch of high-priced analysts at the NPD Group to proclaim the obvious: new data indicates it’s not vegans who are buying them, but meat eaters!

The firm’s survey data indicated that 95% of those who bought shamburgers also purchased beef burgers within the past year, which coincides nicely with ongoing surveys that reveal the same statistic: only about 5% of American adults are actual vegans.

It’s tempting to respond to NPD’s proclamation with, “Duh!” However, the report concluded that it’s not vegetarians or vegans who are buying meatless burgers, but so-called “flexitarians.”

Really? I guarantee that you’d have to spend hours at a White Castle or a Burger King store before you found a single customer who, if queried, would answer, “Why, yes. I am a flexitarian. Thanks for asking.”

Easy, simple … and useless

From Day One of the overhyped rollouts of various alt-met product introductions, it was obvious that the curiosity factor is what was driving initial trial for almost everyone. That’s not to say that the category won’t continue to grow, albeit at a pace less dramatic than the entrepreneurs shilling for their plant-based formulations’ *(alleged) superiority would contend.

Beyond the normal interest in something new and different, the other factor that has spurred sales of plant-based products is the shrewd positioning their marketers have embraced. Choosing a veggie patty or a shamburger assuages people’s concerns about global warming, an eco-crisis they’ve been led to believe is driven by livestock production.

That’s a mantra that animal activists have been promoting for more than a decade now, and give credit to the alt-meat manufacturers: They jumped on that bandwagon with alacrity.

I mean, it’s the perfect pitch for low-information consumers: Concerned about the climate crisis (as you should be)? Worried about the eco-impact of conventional food production? If so, all you need to do is start eating shamburgers instead of hamburgers.

They taste the same, the cost is competitive, and you’ll be helping to solve the planet’s existential crisis without missing a beat — or missing a meal, for that matter.

Switching to plant-based analogs is easy, it’s simple and it requires no significant changes in behavior or lifestyle choices. It’s the perfect solution for the same people who are unwilling to park their vehicles and walk 10 feet into a restaurant when they can just sit in their car and having somebody hand their food to them.

And it’s a false and deceptive argument.

What’s driving climate change isn’t cows, it’s cars. What’s driven CO2 emissions to historic (and dangerous) levels is neither the production or consumption of ground beef, but rather the energy-intensive agricultural, processing, distribution and food delivery systems that have been developed from the mid-20th century onward.

And eating formulated foods manufactured in high-tech factories from ingredients never before widely consumed in human history isn’t the answer to anything.

Other than the profitability of both start-ups and established companies planning to capitalize on the naivete of consumers conned into thinking that alt-meat is some sort of ecological savior, that is.

Going forward, there will be an even greater push to position alt-meat products as not only better for you nutritionally — which they’re decidedly not — but also as a quick and easy way for people to solve the complex and hugely challenging problem of a global ecosystem imperiled on so many fronts by warming temperatures and the potentially disastrous consequences they pose.

And let’s not forget the ultimate irony here.

For every woke fast-food customer (if that’s not the ultimate oxymoron) who proudly orders an Impossible Whopper or Impossible Slider, the tailpipe emissions generated while they’re idling at the drive-thru pretty much negate any potentially positive impact such a purchase could possibly be claimed to effect.

You want fries with your climate crisis contribution?

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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