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A Modern Echo of Marie Antoinette: Corporate Indifference in Times of Economic Strain

Published: March 28, 2024
Many Australian farmers are staring at losses after China increased tariffs. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Published with permission from LuxuryWeb Magazine

In the realm of reincarnation, it’s interesting to ponder about who might be the present-day embodiment of Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), the last Queen of France. The ill-fated queen was infamous for her alleged and dismissive retort to her subjects’ plight: “Let them eat cake!” This phrase — whether apocryphal or not — symbolizes a profound disconnect with the struggles of the common people.

Fast forward to a more recent era, and we find a striking parallel in the corporate sphere. A month ago, Gary Pilnick, the CEO of Kellogg’s, in an interview with CNBC, seemed to channel the same spirit of detachment from the realities faced by many American families struggling to afford groceries.

Pilnick suggested that, in times of financial pressure, turning to cereal as a meal option is a financially savvy choice. “The cereal category has always been quite affordable and tends to be a great destination when consumers are under pressure,” said Pilnick, adding, “If you think about the cost of cereal for a family versus what they might otherwise do, that’s going to be much more affordable!”

Let them eat cereal

Echoing this sentiment, Sadie Garcia, Kellogg’s Senior Director of Brand Marketing, championed cereal for dinner as a practical solution for those looking to save time and money, allowing for more quality moments with family. Yet, the underlying message, reminiscent of “Let them eat cake,” resonates with an eerie familiarity, raising questions about their awareness of everyday economic hardships.

“Cereal for dinner is a low-prep, low-mess and low-price meal option, so you can spend less time cooking and cleaning and more quality time with your loved ones every week,” said Garcia.

The narrative woven by Pilnick and Garcia positions them as emblematic of a corporate culture seemingly aloof to the economic challenges plaguing many Americans. With Pilnick’s substantial salary and incentive compensation, juxtaposed against the backdrop of Kellogg’s price hikes and significant financial performance, a picture of corporate insensitivity comes into sharper focus.

Out of touch

Here is my open letter to Mr. Pilnick:
“Dear CEO: Corporate greed and contempt for your market are no virtues. Next time just think before opening mouth and inserting foot instead of inserting cereal! The US dollar has lost 87% of its purchasing power since 1971 according to the Federal Reserve. In 2022, food at home prices according to the USDA jumped 11.4% and in 2023 5.8%. The price of cereal rose by 8.4% in 2023. Historically, the 20-year retail food prices averaged at most 2.5% up. The average American is spending over 11% of their disposable income on food, the highest in 3 decades.”

This dissonance prompted this reflective letter to Mr. Pilnick, urging a reevaluation of priorities and a more empathetic stance towards consumers. It highlights the erosion of the U.S. dollar’s purchasing power, the escalating cost of food, and the disproportionate impact on average Americans’ budgets. The letter concludes with a poignant reminder: ignoring the needs and realities of consumers could lead to metaphorical, if not literal, downfall.

In drawing these parallels, one cannot help but wonder about the lessons history imparts and the importance of empathy and connection in leadership, especially in times of economic struggle.