An Animal Rights Group Criticizes IHOP. Do Consumers Care?

IHOP — the International House of Pancakes — is the latest restaurant chain to come under fire for the treatment of animals in their supply chain. So, we wondered, do consumers care?

According to an Associated Press report yesterday, the Humane Society of the United States filed two complaints with federal regulators alleging that the restaurant chain lies about the living conditions of the chickens that lay the eggs for its omelets and pancakes. The chickens are caged in spaces so small that they can't even spread their wings, according to the complaints. IHOP claims that its eggs are "cruelty free" and animals used for its food receive "dignified, humane treatment." The animal welfare group said that's not true, and that the Glendale, Calif.-based company is engaged in "false or deceptive advertising."

As the AP correctly notes, the Humane Society and its supporters have waged a long-running battle against the restaurant industry over the conditions in which chickens are raised.

Of course, many factors help determine customer response to such accusations, but a particularly interesting one is the "consumers' understanding of the brand's promise," says Wharton marketing professor Cassie Mogilner. The "promise" Mogilner refers to is the consumer's overall view of a brand — what it represents, what makes it different from competitors. "If what [the brand] is accused of conflicts with that promise," the brand is in trouble, she says.

In other words, consumers would likely get very riled if a restaurant called the Free Range Diner was serving up eggs from tightly caged hens. Since IHOP builds its image around affordable, hearty meals, the damage to its image in this case may be relatively slight. 

Still, while the restaurant chain doesn't build ad campaigns around free range chickens, it does claim on the "social responsibility" section its web site to be "against the cruel treatment of animals." It says also that the company's suppliers "go beyond what is required by law" to ensure animals are treated well.

The Federal Trade Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, where the complaints were filed, will have to sort out whether those claims amount to the misleading of consumers and investors. Meanwhile, IHOP probably should not anticipate a significant dip in orders for its "Bacon Temptation Omelet," though it should probably be careful about how it treats its pigs..