Super Bowl Ad Looks to Score Points Against Plant-Based Meat

The Center for Consumer Freedom throws shade on the Impossible Burger

By Krista Karlson

February 6, 2020


By the time the cleats had cleared out of Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday, one thing was obvious: The Center for Consumer Freedom really doesn’t want you to try the Impossible Burger. The organization spent more than $5 million for a Super Bowl ad aimed at convincing viewers that meat from animals is more natural than the popular plant-based alternative.

In the ad, children at a spelling bee are asked to spell words like methylcellulose and propylene—two of about 21 ingredients that make up the Impossible Burger. Their parents whisper and scrunch their noses while the moderator explains that methylcellulose is a chemical laxative used in synthetic meat. The ad ends with a perky voice declaring, “If you can’t pronounce it, maybe you shouldn’t be eating it.”

“Is methylcellulose a chemical laxative?” You may be wondering with alarm. Not exactly. It’s a synthetic derivative of cellulose, so it’s essentially a fiber, which means it’s a laxative only in so far as fiber is a laxative.

It’s important to bear in mind that conventional industrial livestock production is hardly a “natural” process, nor is it chemical-free. Most conventionally raised cows are treated heavily with antibiotics, and they consume pesticides through their food that can end up accumulating in their fat. Beef can be contaminated in other ways too.

Impossible Foods (the company that produces the Impossible Burger) responded to the attack ad by releasing a parody video on YouTube, which so far has garnered about 15,000 views. In this version of the spelling bee, the moderator, CEO Pat Brown, asks a distressed contestant to spell “poop.” A narrator explains that in 2015, Consumer Reports tested 300 samples of ground beef and found fecal bacteria in all of them.

On its website, the Center for Consumer Freedom claims to be advocating for an individual’s right to choose what they eat. The organization doesn’t have to disclose its donors but says that it is supported by “restaurants, food companies, and thousands of individual consumers.” Michael Pollan says otherwise in an opinion piece he wrote for The New York Times back in 2006: “The Center for Consumer Freedom is actually not a consumer group but an astro-turf (that’s faux grassroots) advocacy group funded by Big Food to discredit those in the media and government who would do anything—including litigate, regulate, and, apparently, express disagreeable opinions—to interfere with the industry’s freedom to make as much money as possible selling us junk food.” 

While it got its start in tobacco advocacy, the Center for Consumer Freedom has also run attack ads against the Humane Society and PETA. The alternative meat industry is its latest target. The organization has taken the “fake meat” crusade to the pages of The New York Post and The New York Times, where it recently ran full-page ads. One reads, “Things to Avoid: Fake Hair, Fake Orgasms, Fake Meat.” 

Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that the organization took to an even bigger stage during the Super Bowl. The global processed poultry and meat market was valued at $693 billion in 2017, and experts estimate that the number will rise to $1.4 trillion by 2026. But the alternative meat market is gaining ground and could swell to $140 billion by 2029, as consumers continue to shift toward a more environmentally friendly diet and as concerns about climate change escalate.

Beef accounts for 41 percent of the carbon emissions produced by animal agriculture worldwide, or about 6 percent of total global emissions. By contrast, production of the Impossible Burger generates 89 percent less greenhouse gas emissions

But does the meat industry really have reason to feel threatened? Maybe. CEO Pat Brown has explicitly stated that Impossible Food’s mission is to drive the meat industry out of business, and there is no question that it and its main competitor, Beyond Meat, are reaching traditional meat-eating consumers. Last August, Burger King began offering the Impossible Whopper in all of its 72,000 restaurants. Meanwhile, Beyond Meat is available in at least 53,000 outlets. Even the rapper Snoop Dogg has gotten on board and is now promoting Dunkin’s Beyond Sausages nationwide. 

Some big meat companies, at least, see the writing on the wall: Hormel, Smithfield, and Tyson have all released their own plant-based burgers.