My Chemical-Free Nightmare

April 6th, 2012

One of the perks of having a girlfriend with a broken leg is that she requires assistance in the shower, which I am happy to provide. In my extra time in the bathroom this week, I was horrified to pluck these inconspicuous containers from a lush forest of colorful beauty products:

Organic! Chemical free!            Wait.          Chemical free?!

Hmmm. It sure looks like there is matter inside these bottles, and I’ll bet this matter comprises chemicals of some sort. Why don’t we just take a look at the list of ingredients, shall we?

Nope, I was wrong. No chemicals. Just enzymes, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, and fatty acids. No chemicals here :/

I have blurred out the designer of these products because he is my girlfriend’s hairdresser and friend, and I don’t want an army of irate readers to descend on Los Angeles. That said, I have instructed my ladyfriend to relay my emphatic disapproval—in no uncertain terms—of the use of “chemical-free” to describe anything except a completely empty container.

Chemistry has all but completely lost hold of its brand in the sphere of public perception, and in today’s society, that can have disastrous consequences. In politics, parties actively try to sink their competitors by painting them in a negative light. Republicans never miss a chance to label Democrats as “the party that wants to raise your taxes”, while Dems counter that the GOP “only cares about the rich”. This childish back-and-forth is tiresome, but effective. That is why you see politicians jabbing and name calling at every opportunity the media grants them. It’s a vicious cycle, because if you decide to take the high road and not fight back, the negative slogans—whether accurate or not—will stick and seriously damage your brand.

Unlike for political parties, the science of chemistry has no natural enemies. Physicists aren’t going on TV to complain that dirty chemists are getting too much grant money. But, what is happening is that we have stood by while marketing agencies have hijacked and rebranded a few key terms from our jargon. For instance, they have imbued the term “organic” with all sorts of positivity and wholesomeness, while warping its definition from what chemists have historically understood “organic” to mean.

The case of “organic” might not be so bad, but the problem is unequivocally dire for “chemical”. In today’s advertisements, “chemical” no longer has just a negative connotation, it essentially denotes “toxic ingredient”. Somehow, one of our most generic terms—and one that lies at the very foundation of our profession—has been twisted into something dreadfully sinister.

How could we allow such a thing to happen? The answer is obvious: we have never fought back. While our field was maturing as a science and an industry in the 20th century, we proudly trumpeted the idea of “Better Living Through Chemistry”. DuPont even adopted the phrase as a company slogan…only to drop it in the 1980s. Since then, it is hard to point to a solitary example of a serious PR campaign on behalf of chemistry. In the meantime, we have allowed Madison Avenue to fill this vacuum by painting “chemicals” as bad in a wildly successful tactic for marketing consumer products.

In my mind, this is easily the biggest failure of the American Chemical Society, and to me, it appears that the ACS continues to do next to nothing to solve the problem. Chemists cannot count on chemistry and science to “sell itself”. While we know chemistry offers all sorts of benefits to society, we are going to have to load our weapons and mow down the booger-eating ad executives who are wiping the floor with us. The sustained growth and financial support of our field depends on it.

And incidentally, this is the sort of thing for which I pay ACS dues. While the matter is phenomenally important, I really don’t have the time, expertise, or resources ($$$) to mount a national PR campaign to promote our field. That said, I do have the time to campaign against apathetic ACS officers and candidates in the annual ACS elections. Mark my words: we’ll remember come November.


30 Responses to “My Chemical-Free Nightmare”

  1. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    How about a traveling exhibit expressly designed to dispel such misconceptions? With massive publicity of course (preferably in leading papers and magazines). Otherwise I fear “chemical” will end up in the bin of permanently tainted, context-free bugbears wherein lies “nuclear”. What is jarring is the sheer insouciance with which people have started to throw around “chemical-free” without second thought.

  2. NCharles Says:

    Amen!

  3. Chemjobber Says:

    Unlike for political parties, the science of chemistry has no natural enemies.

    Wrong. The modern environmental movement is the natural enemy of industrial chemistry. /troll

  4. Carmen Says:

    Wish you’d been there for my San Diego talk- would’ve been good to discuss this in the Q&A. (I know the talk was taped- dunno when it will be available for posting). Any kind of campaign that tries to teach people/marketers the facts might be emotionally satisfying for chemists (yes! we’re fighting back and taking back the message!). But I doubt it’s going to move the needle very far. Shouting matches don’t change public opinion. They only galvanize the stalwarts on both sides and get ignored by the majority that’s in between. The best the chemistry field can do is be honest about the field’s dual sided nature- emphasize the good chemistry does while acknowledging its Bhopals. And then emphasizing that chemists are real people– to dispel the ivory tower/mad scientist stereotype and engender trust. (People gravitate to the Jenny McCarthy’s of the world because she casts herself as “a parent like you”).

  5. troggy Says:

    On a related note: Langer is now in the hair business! Definitely “chemicals” in these products.

    http://www.livingproof.com/

  6. Paul Says:

    I would love to go around educating the public about chemistry—both the good and bad—but that is a much more ambitious campaign than I have in mind. By all means, let’s try to improve education, but I propose a much more direct approach to stamping out chemophobia.

    We’ve got to fight fire with fire. We need a charismatic champion of chemistry on the level of a Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould. We also need one or two good slogans, and an office at ACS that aggressively monitors the media, promotes positive stories, and makes chemists available for interviews (to address both positive and negative news stories).

    This list of science popularizers is absolutely pathetic for chemistry, and the ACS’s indifference to our field’s image problem is contemptible.

  7. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I think the list of science popularizers at least partly reflects an under-appreciated aspect of science popularization – money. I am not saying that it’s mainly financial considerations that drive Brian Greene to write books about multiple universes, but it would be naive to imagine him being as gung ho about pitching quantum mechanics to the public if books about such esoteric topics had not had a record of consistently shooting to the top of the bestseller list.

    The fact is that the public has a rather peculiarly real taste for abstract, mind-bending, “big picture” things like cosmology and evolution and chemistry by its very nature lacks an abundance of these concepts. The one big thing that chemistry has going for itself is the origin of life, and in my opinion this topic has been woefully underrepresented as a quintessentially chemical puzzle involving self-assembly. One way to get the public interested in chemistry would be to launch a series with a Carl Sagan like character who spends the first few episodes talking about the chemical origins of life. Then, once he has the audience hooked with this, he can find creative ways to segue into other chemical applications and misconceptions and demonstrate that it’s all part of the same mix. Science popularization is not too different from performance theater. If your introduction lacks panache and grandeur you have already lost half the audience.

    Time to break out the tweed jacket.

  8. Chemjobber Says:

    Science popularization is not too different from performance theater.

    I hear Mike Daisey is looking for work these days… ;-)

  9. See Arr Oh Says:

    Ash – Can I argue the counterpoint? While much of quantum physics and cosmology has roots in “big picture” concepts (black holes, strings, dimensions, etc), one critical part of chemistry should be the opposite: its presence in our daily lives, for good or ill. While it may be tough to wrap your brain around nanocomputers or distant nebulae, there should be relatable and interesting ways to discuss leaves (photosynthesis, solar power, pigments), air (smog, environment, volcanic dust), or earth (soil bacteria, minerals, isotopic dating).

    While OOL would extend an olive branch to those from other fields, and is certainly our biggest question, it’s not our only exciting question. If a prominent chemist, with great speaking skills and personality, lectured to us for an hour about clouds or rocks (visions of Faraday here), I’d listen!

  10. Notmedchem Says:

    RE: Science PR Campaigns.

    Dow has actually done a pretty amazing job.

    WRT chemistry The Human Element commercials use the public’s love of the Periodic Table.
    Watch at http://www.dow.com/hu

    And the Viral Advertising via the Giant Chalkboard in NYC.
    and it was on Twitter. @giantchalkboard
    http://www.giantchalkboard.com

    Dupont’s Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry was literally the best popular advertisement for the Chemical Sciences. But the 70s/80s environmental fights killed the good will that it had.

  11. Matt Says:

    A couple things

    1) As far as the ACS is concerned, I think that this is one of the most important roles that the ACS president should play. But, their term (1 year) is too short to be meaningfully engrained in the public’s eye. And, not many of them would be willing to really do this.

    2) David Pogue hosted a two hour show on NOVA this week on “Hunting the Elements“. I’ve heard really good reviews, but haven’t sat down with it yet. Unfortunately (sigh), PBS has it under their Physics subheading (because they don’t have a chemistry one!). BTW Pogue also has a PBS series called “Making Stuff” that I’m certain has plenty of chemistry in it as well.

    3) I think that whatever route goes to selling chemistry (everyday life vs origin of life — I actually think it needs and deserves both routes) the host needs to be charismatic, but most importantly — the production value and computer graphics had better be stunning.
    There is a huge disconnect in visualizing/thinking about molecules (say a vinyl chloride monomer in PVC — something we can never and will never “see”) and translating that to things that we see/feel/touch (PVC pipe) I think that this is the biggest challenge.

    4) In response to @Carmen’s comment in re: Jenny McCarthy. One of the things that I try in my chem of cooking class (and try every now and then on the blog) is to make people see that, yes, they ARE chemists just like me … they just don’t necessarily know that or think of themselves that way.

  12. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    @See Arr Oh: I totally agree with that. The stuff that you listed is undoubtedly the meat of chemistry and what we want to really communicate to laymen. But I am just thinking that OOL may be a good way to *initiate* the public into chemical waters. And then, once we have their attention, we can demonstrate chemistry’s sheer range by indicating its relevance for everything from OOL to cooking (cue Matt). I just think that sometimes it’s hard to get someone’s attention by talking about black graphite rather than black holes even when the former is much more relevant to their everyday lives. While we do want people to relate to chemistry, we also want them to be fascinated by it the way they are by physics, and OOL may serve to spark that fascination in the first place.

  13. See Arr Oh Says:

    Ash – I can see where you’re going with this. You need to give them some excitement, some mystery up front, a “gateway drug” to our fascinating field.

    Maybe a good middle ground would be a Nature vs. Science debate (No, not the journals!). We’ll talk for 20 minutes about the structure of chloroplasts, how they harvest light, and then segue to Ru bpy or Nocera / Gray work. Or, perhaps enzymes and chiral catalysts would illustrate this better. Ditto biopolymers vs. synthetics, or comparing natural minerals against concretes.

    Nanoputians need not apply.

  14. bad wolf Says:

    “Nanoputians need not apply.”

    Oh heaven forfend you use the one thing specifically made to interest children in chemistry and provide a way of conceptually connecting the micro- and macro-world.

  15. Carmen Says:

    Great stuff here, folks. I hope Stephen Lyons is listening and chooses a charismatic Sagan-y figure to host his PBS show. He’s gotten some good money for it. http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward.do?AwardNumber=1010581 and http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward.do?AwardNumber=0840266

    Oh, and @troggy – I see that stuff every time I’m in Sephora. I really like their motto- “Science is beautiful. We are living proof.”

  16. Chemjobber Says:

    @bad wolf: Have I told you lately that I love you?

    As odd of an attempt as it was, it was at least an attempt.

  17. Anon Says:

    More Tour:

    http://www.thechemblog.com/?p=763
    http://scienceblogs.com/moleculeoftheday/2007/06/nanokid_yes_this_got_federal_f.php
    http://www.org-chem.org/yuuki/nanoputian/nanoputian_en.html
    http://blogs.nature.com/thescepticalchymist/2007/03/reactions_james_tour.html#/comments
    http://www.coronene.com/blog/?p=168

  18. Renee Says:

    I watched the first half of the David Pogue show on the elements this past week. It was mostly about watching elements explode when you toss them into water or heat them up. There was an explosion of one sort or another every 10 minutes or so. I’ve got to give it to the host, he seriously loves this stuff. There was an occasional fact about electrons and protons, and what differentiates one element from another, but that distracted somewhat from the series of explosions. There was one segment about gold mining, and about how much effort goes into recovering gold from gold ore, that showed some of chemistry’s usefulness.

    Which, I’m afraid, is part of chemistry’s problem. It’s either about blowing stuff up, or about polluting the environment.

    On PBS, there are plenty of shows about physics/astronomy or about biology/medicine, but rarely any on chemistry. Even the science show NOVA rarely has anything chemistry-related. If it does, it’s David Pogue explosion time.

    I’m not certain what the answer is to all this. Maybe the new show on PBS will help to remedy some of this.

  19. Lance Says:

    Do you have any naked pictures of your girlfriend that you are willing to post?

  20. Puff the Mutant Dragon Says:

    Could not agree more. Chemophobia has just become rampant to the point where it’s this accepted idea that we are surrounded by “evil chemicals” which are fruits of modern industry and that we need to get back to a more “natural” lifestyle. It’s going to take a lot of work to rid the public of these misconceptions. I’d like to think The Media would help us, but unfortunately they are part of the problem.

  21. qvxb Says:

    Convince Chuck Lorre to cast Jenny McCarthy as a chemistry professor in “The Big Bang Theory”. Paul, would you be willing to be a consultant if this comes to pass?

  22. Paul Says:

    Ye$!

    I mean, ye$$$.

  23. Kerri Says:

    Chemicals, schmemicals.. I want to hear from your gal if these products work!

    :)

  24. Tony Says:

    I recall BASF ran a series of TV ads in the UK about the contribution of chemistry to all sorts of everyday things. They don’t sell direct to consumers, so perhaps they were trying to do their bit to promote chemistry?

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    As chemists, the more we learn about chemicals the more respect we seem to have for them but we do not fear them. In spite of the fact that many many talented people spend a huge amount of time bring chemistry to the public and making them aware of its relationship to our quality of life, all it takes is the phase, “Chemical spill” to undermine their efforts. People tend to remember things like the Bhopal chemical disaster, etc, and to the vast majority all chemicals appear evil. What can we do?

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