The Latest Revelations in Science Communications Came from Jimmy Kimmel

  • From Kimmel interviews to YouTube comments, consumers' perception of biotechnology is not well-informed.
  • For a number of items in food, fear is based on unfamiliar terminology.
  • Science communcators need to talk benefits, not just basic facts.

This weekend, somewhere in between the Shia Labeouf segment and the LL Cool J segment, Jimmy Kimmel started lighting up my favorite blogs and newsfeeds. In his ever-beloved man-on-the-street segment, he introduced us to farmer's market shoppers, asking if they avoided GMOs ... and if they could say what GMOs were. (A more accurate term is "food biotechnology.")

A number of shoppers "don't want it in their body" or "want to avoid 'the effects'" (though it's unclear what they think those are), but until minute 4, not a single interviewee can say what the letters stand for. As the Nerdist points out, a lot of the interviewees say they know that "GMOs are bad," even after they realize that they don't know what GMOs are. It's a crushing realization for science communicators, because the "bad" brand has become more powerful to many consumers than the actual scientific evidence.

We worked on a similar man-on-the-street activity a few years ago, this time wondering how consumers perceived "biotechnology" versus "Genetically Modified Organisms" (check out the video on the right). Interviewees really did like the sound of biotechnology, but GMOs sounded "scary." It's a classic example, like many multi-syllable food ingredient names, of fear based on terminology.

There is still hope, and lots of it, for us science communicators. In our Food Technology Survey, 7 in 10 Americans say they have heard at least a little about biotechnology. Though it may not be something you'd admit to a TV camera, more than 4 in 10 are neutral on the topic or say that they don’t know enough to form an opinion. Usually the benefits of biotechnology, from improved food nutrition to reduced potential for carcinogens, are the last thing consumers hear about, but the Survey shows that these benefits are important to consumers. We can and must do better. Science communicators need to step up on communicating these benefits, because food technology is too important to lose on branding.

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