Carrots, night vision, myth and marketing mystery

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night vision.
Do carrots improve night vision, or was this a World War II myth? The story turns out to be more complex than you might think at first sight and could be a metaphor for many marketing challenges. (Photo from deviantart.com/sharkplane 77)
night vision.
Do carrots improve night vision, or was this a World War II myth? The story turns out to be more complex than you might think at first sight and could be a metaphor for many marketing challenges. (Photo from deviantart.com/sharkplane 77)

Like many people of my generation, I grew up with the story that if you eat lots of carrots, your night vision will be improved. I never thought more of the story, until learning recently that there is another story out there — that the “carrot/night vision” story was concocted by British propagandists to disguise the reason for the suddenly more effective “kill rate” against German forces during the Battle of Britain — either because of Radar’s introduction or (more seriously) the fact that the British code-breakers had cracked the German Enigma code; and needed a cover-story to explain how things were suddenly going so well, without giving up the radar/code-breaking secret.

This Scientific American story shines some light on the myth/reality here — and reveals the complexity of most good stories.

Decades later rumors swirled that the British Royal Air Force pushed that message as a cover-up for the recently adopted radar technology they were secretly relying on for their nighttime skirmishes. Information from the de Havilland Aircraft Museum suggests that subterfuge was indeed the British Ministry of Information’s plan.  But Bryan Legate, assistant curator at the Royal Air Force Museum in London has a different view. “I would say that whilst the [British] Air Ministry were happy to go along with the story [of carrot-improved vision], they never set out to use it to fool the Germans,” Legate says. “The German intelligence service were well aware of our ground-based radar installation and would not be surprised by the existence of radar in aircraft. In fact, the RAF were able to confirm the existence of German airborne radar simply by fitting commercial radios into a bomber and flying over France listening to the various radio frequencies!” he adds.

And, it seems, there is some correlation between improved night-vision and eating carrots — if you live in a part of the world where Vitamin A deficiency is a serious concern.

The answer is yes, under certain conditions, eating carrots will help improve eyesight.

The body uses beta-carotene to make vitamin A, and “vitamin A is really important, there’s no question about that,” says Emily Chew, deputy clinical director at the National Eye Institute. Vitamin A helps the eye convert light into a signal that can be transmitted to the brain, allowing people to see under conditions of low light. In addition, the cornea (the clear front of the eye) can literally disappear if the body does not get enough vitamin A. Every year an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 children become blind as a result of vitamin A deficiency. In settings where undernourished people suffer from extreme vitamin A deficiencies, such as Nepal or India, supplements of the vitamin or beta-carotene have been shown to improve night vision.

The article goes on to point out that Vitamin A deficiency isn’t so common in North America, and other foods than carrots might be more effective

When it comes to eating nutrient-rich foods to improve eyesight, more generally, Chew suggests stocking up on green, leafy vegetables. Spinach, kale or collard greens—all chock-full of lutein and zeaxanthin (which are other food-derived nutrients)—could help protect your eyes by filtering high-energy wavelengths of visible light that can damage the retina. Such foods may also help to protect against age-related macular degeneration, the major cause of blindness in the elderly.

So, the story that is too good to be true, isn’t, but is . . . the myth has some substance in scientific foundation, and there is some evidence it really was part of the wartime propaganda/deception initiatives, but it didn’t count the way the story tellers like to suggest.

I think the carrot story describes much of the decision-making and material processes within construction marketing. If we pull things off well as marketers, we’ll produce a good story that people really believe, engages, and invites clients to do business. There can be science behind the story, but there’s also plenty of hot air and emotional fantasy.

Nothing wrong with this stuff, of course, if it doesn’t cause harm or us to waste money on faulty initiatives. Maybe carrots help night-vision in some cases, and maybe the carrot story helped propagandists mask the real reason the British could beat the Germans in World War II. Maybe our corporate stories lead people to believe more than should count, but maybe they build on our real successes and achievements. The truth may sometimes be more complex than it seems, and sometimes truth and fiction correlate in the same story.

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