It's not often I flip through a paper copy of The New York Times--I usually read all my news online. I happened to be paging through today's, though, and the front section gave me a real sense of déjà vu. That's because Campbell's and Progresso each ran ads bashing the monosodium glutamate (MSG) content of the other's soups, which appeared only pages apart.
MSG is a flavor enhancer that appears in many canned and processed foods. It sets off the taste buds on the tongue that detect umami, a hearty, savory taste. Some people appear to react to MSG and, naturally, want products that contain very little of it, if at all. Meanwhile, federal agencies and independent review panels say that MSG is safe for most people. C&EN's Deputy Editor-in-Chief A. Maureen Rouhi wrote about MSG several years ago, saying "The bad rap about MSG seems to have faded."
I'd venture that marketing specialists and ad firms working with Campbell's and Progresso don't agree, based on this series of ads.
A publication called Adweek has been following the "soup wars" story for some time now, if you're interested in the nitty-gritty details. The picture I've included here is of a Campbell's ad that BrandWeek says was the "first shot" fired in the ongoing debate.
I guess I'm not sure about why the companies chose to go this route right now, when the controversy's been around for quite some time. Progresso announced just a week ago that it is planning to cut MSG from all of its soups. Maybe it's just about grabbing a bigger slice of the canned soup market share in a volatile economy. Stephen Colbert recently noted that Campbell's was the only stock in the S&P500 to go up during a particularly rough day of trading.
Unfortunately, I don't think these ads give consumers the entire picture of their products' healthfulness, and instead choose to focus on concerns about one ingredient. Clearly, without MSG, something has to be done to improve canned soups' flavor, whether it's adding more salt (which has problems in its own right) or something else that would also have to face intense scrutiny. Maybe it's just easier from a marketing perspective to focus on a familiar enemy than to encourage healthier all-around eating habits.