Consumer Choice–Is there a Moral Imperative?

Yesterday I read an op-ed piece in the Denver Post from a woman who was bashing Whole Foods for being up in a down economy and criticizing Whole Foods shoppers for indulging in luxury items, while she and her family were clipping every coupon she could find to keep her food expenses within her budget.    

What bothered me about the article was her tone of moral superiority indicating that she was doing the right thing while the profligate shoppers in her local Whole Foods store were buying frivilous, expensive items that her kids rejected after sampling.    

The article was depressing from a marketing viewpoint, but also from the viewpoint of tolerance of other people’s choices.  Do we all have a moral imperative to eat cheaper food, or do companies have a social imperative to make less profit during this time of economic woe?      

Even if this women represents the majority (in her neighborhood, or a wider scope) does that make her “right?”  And “right” by whose measuring stick?  Whatever happened to free choice and being allowed to live your own life as long as you didn’t hurt others?  By selling indulgence, or simply more expensive alternatives than mass-market choices, companies seem to be somehow un-patriotic in this woman’s eyes.    

As luck would have it, I stumbled upon a white paper this morning from The Harman Group entitled: Consider Choice, which shed some light on the possible mindset of the woman writing the Whole Foods article:     

When choices move from the personal to the collective, over time we tend to imbue such choices with a sense of morality. We mask the fact that they are still choices. Is it healthier to not drink and smoke in the office? Probably. Yet nobody ever questions the current choice to constantly graze in the office and eat at our desks, many of which are adorned with candy bowls to invite conversation.* 

Should Whole Foods simply showcase the items they have on sale?  I think not.  Empty-nesters and young singles have very different tastes and priorities for their discretionary dollars than young families with lots of growing kids.  Whole Foods has every right to continue offering products to a segment of the population that doesn’t include this article’s author–and make a profit.   

How should we, as business people and especially marketers and communicators,  respond or prevent this moral judgement from overtaking the marketplace?  Thoughts?    

* “Consider Choice,” a white paper available online for download from The Hartman Group:   


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