January, 2014

Fruits of Thought

Taking A Cue From Aristotle When Marketing Produce & Health

The produce industry has long sought a marketing message that would resonate with consumers — thus increasing consumption and sales. To many in the trade, indeed to most of the top executives, it often seemed that this message should play on the healthfulness of fresh produce and how a diet rich in fresh produce is likely to lead to healthier living. More broadly, produce executives and industry leaders yearn to tie produce to fitness and health. Yet many such efforts, over many years, have not succeeded in moving the needle on produce consumption.

In fact, the question isn’t even about the produce industry’s marketing efforts. There is substantial and sustained data indicating that the healthfulness of fresh produce is widely known, a consequence of parents and public health, more than industry efforts. This explains the limitations of many health-oriented marketing efforts. If fresh produce is already recognized as healthy, then marketing in this vein can do little more than reinforce the point. That hardly seems likely to dramatically change consumption patterns.

In the face of low levels of consumption, the widespread recognition that produce is healthy raises the question of why people don’t act in ways that would seem to be in their best interest. The short answer is we don’t read enough Aristotle.

The whole concept of happiness has changed since Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics. We think of happiness as a mental state. You can be happy today and unhappy tomorrow based on subjective factors. It is about how you happen to feel. Aristotle saw happiness as an objective end goal that temporary fluctuations could not speak to. As Aristotle explained: “. . . for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

Aristotle thinks happiness is important; it is the end that meets the criteria he sets out as “that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.” As humans we all pursue pleasure, wealth and reputation not as goals in themselves but because we believe they will make us happy.


Aristotle sought to understand human happiness by identifying what was distinctively human. His answer was rationality. Humans have the ability to reason, so we can hold them responsible for their choices.

Since the unique ability of humans is the ability to reason, we could use this capability to assess our situation and obtain our goals — especially happiness. Aristotle defined happiness this way: “…the function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence. If this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”

The key here is two things: First, there is a link between happiness and virtue and, for our purposes we can think of virtue as behaving well, doing the right things, such as eating properly. Second, happiness is an active, not a passive, state. So one must strive  to do the right things.

Aristotle explained it this way: “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.”

In other words, for Aristotle, happiness exists in achieving all the things that lead to the perfection of a human being, the attainment of human potential — this includes friendships, knowledge, wealth and, yes, health.

So rational humans, assessing the world and their situation in it and desiring to obtain happiness, will note the healthfulness of produce and will eat it. It is not enough to contemplate what the right thing is or even to intend to be virtuous; one has to actually do the right thing.

In our modern world, so many have become slaves to what Aristotle called akrasia, roughly translated as “weakness of the will.” Our culture has become so focused on finding shortcuts and instant solutions that Aristotle would not be pleased. Do people really want to eat healthy? Or do they want to eat whatever they want and take LIPITOR?

The produce industry needs to sell produce now. Focusing on health and association with beautiful physical specimens, such as athletes, may help with those portions of the population striving to act rationally. But it would be foolish to neglect the far larger market of those looking to indulge.

In the background we, as part of society, can keep in mind that the information is out there — we just need to help people process it better. Aristotle thought it to be possible. He thought the big issue was keeping the end in mind. As Aristotle believed: “Even an awkward archer can get better if he keeps practicing and aiming at the target.”                 pb