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A framework for thinking about the kinds of arguments made. Goodnight’s spheres as detailed by Rachel A. Whidden (2012):

  • Private

    • “when they chat with a friend, and solidify their relationship as they take turns talking. Because it permits a looser construction of arguments, discussion in the personal sphere is more informal in nature and requires less empirical evidence than in the technical sphere” (p.243)

    • I decided whether a supplement makes me feel better because I know my body best

  • Technical 

    • “require specialized knowledge of a topic and are judged in terms of their strength within a context where there are clear epistemic standards distinguishing strong from weak arguments” (p.243)

    • A scientist conducts clinic trials on increased levels of a natural supplement to determine if there are documentable results using the scientific method

  • Public

    • “provides constructed rules and guidelines for participants that are more formal than those in the personal sphere, yet not as rigorous as those in the technical sphere” (p.243)

    • It is decided that a natural supplement has merit because many public facing figures (individuals, websites) tout its success. 


In this case, we used the framework to study the messages and arguments put forth by these brands on- and offline!

Tropical Leaves
Flowers in Pocket


Seed as a Case Study

Seed was founded in 2018 by two co-founders: Ara Katz and Raja Dhir. The two united over their interest in the microbiome. The microbiome is made up of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses which function collectively in your body to make up a large part of your immune system. The team created their first and only product named after the company: Seed, A Daily Synbiotic. The product, a combination prebiotic and probiotic in pill form seeks to optimize overall health. The company claims that improving one’s microbiome can improve digestion, skin, immunity functions, and more. 


The pills cost $49.99 per month and are delivered to your doorstep once a month. Adults take 2 pills daily with or without food. Seed recommends listening to your body and determining what makes it the happiest. The blend of biotics is custom made, researched backed, and contains one of the most diverse sets of strains on the market. The company claims the strains have a 100% survival rate through simulated digestion meaning that all of the strains are available to your body for use. 


Seed, while unique in its transparency and science forward advertising, replicates a lot of the messaging and design tools used by other wellness brands like the other 3 we studied. This reflection serves as a singular case study analysis of Seed as a brand but it is also representative of the other brands we studied and takes into account what we learned from our interviews and other ethnographic work. Using Goodnight’s spheres of argumentation, a rhetorical tool for classifying arguments and the criteria that should be applied to them to determine legitimacy, we can understand that Seed positions itself as a science centered and science forward brand (Goodnight, 2012, Whidden, 2012). The brand uses science heavy arguments and mainly aims to have consumers evaluate their product using criteria from the technical sphere. Arguments in the technical sphere are legitimized based on their reliance on epistemic knowledge and scientific method; Seed would like consumers to to see their product as being supported by the scientific method and by science in general. 


To do this, Seed centers their science research and their educational materials on the microbiome in their website design. Seed uses their web layout to communicate that their product should be evaluated using technical sphere criteria. The front page of the Seed website features 2 landing tabs dedicated to learning about the science behind the microbiome and the research behind Seed as a product. The choice to put the two tabs on the left indicates that those tabs are where Seed wants consumers to go first as typically people read from left to write. By placing the informational tabs before the shop tab, Seed is foregrounding their science research as a means of establishing legitimacy. Many of the other wellness brands examined replicated this layout. Some were keen to center their science research and others their anti-science research often embedded in founder personal narratives. The effect foregrounds the brands’ beliefs and values in a way that suggests the beliefs and values almost supersede the product in terms of importance. In aligning itself with these methods and practices, Seed is appealing to consumers who want their health products to be held to a technical level of rigor which is assumed to indicate efficacy. While the criteria used to attract a consumer was seen to vary, the foregrounding of ideals as central to the products usefulness did not.


Despite the science heavy layout, Seed does use personal sphere arguments to support their science centered synbiotic. Seed attempts to attract consumers who value the company’s unique levels of research and their prioritization of results driven work, but the wellness space is not always pro-science. This is evidenced by the common consumer aversion to heavily “scienced” products in the health and wellness space such as GMOs or even vaccines (Moldovan, 2018). This aversion is a result of a very common “appeal to nature” logical fallacy which equates nature with inherent goodness and unnaturalness (technology, human intervention) with inherent badness (Moldovan, 2018). It is also a result of the “illusory truth effect” which suggests that if someone has heard a statement before they are more likely to believe it is true (Pennycook et al., 2018). Wellness myths that are anti science gain legitimacy as a result of this effect. Our interviewees testified to the power of this effect. Some emphasized that their knowledge largely came from the idea of public sphere “consensus” and others specifically called out their preference for personal recommendation or their lack of faith in “word of mouth” or general consensus. In all cases, the illusory truth effect seemed on the interviewees mind. 


 Through leveraging their packing, web design, and language, Seed softens the technical sphere arguments to avoid seeming overly scientific and to drive home the idea that their product is in line with a natural state of health. This allows them to attract a wider audience of both pro-science and science averse consumers. While not all brands sought to attract both groups, there was a conscious choice by all of the supplement brands to connect to an audience that was science skeptical. This state of health as “natural” is a recurring theme emphasized by the brands we studied and espoused by our interviewees as a result. Being in good health was often seen as congruent with what is “natural” implying that when humans are unhealthy, they are “unnatural.” Many supplement companies, therefore, walk a fine line between promoting a health that is “natural” and selling man-made, manufactured products. Seed targets consumers who value traditional science, but as our interviews revealed, a belief in science and a scientific method does not always translate to a belief in the medical industrial complex’s idea of “health.” Many who staunchly supported science topics like climate change and the scientific method in general, felt that science often failed them in the doctor's office because doctors were not willing or able to treat them on a personalized level and were most interested in efficiency and prescription. 


To navigate the complexities established in our interviews and brand analysis, Seed taps into this idea of “nature as good”  which is an argument that is firmly personal because of its removal from any kind of definition or epistemic knowledge. It relies on the consumer’s definition of nature and their feelings of wellbeing. The best example of these appeals are in the slogans used throughout Seed’s site. Health related terms of encouragement like “You are a rainforest,” ”It Takes a Brainforest,” and comparisons to humans as “superorganisms, walking talking ecosystems” appear in prominent places throughout the site (Seed, 2020). This choice of language is indicative of Seed’s decision to foreground technical arguments that are reinforced through personal appeals to nature. 


The first quote, “You are a rainforest,” takes the well known ecosystem of a rainforest and compares it to the human body. The slogans reinforce nature as the originator of science by comparing the microbiome in the body to the rainforest. The rainforest is a well beloved ecosystem popular in school curriculum and ad campaigns due to the prominence of the Save the Rainforest campaigns in the ‘80’s and 90’s (Nosowitz, 2019). It is the preferred ecosystem according to Kiley, Ainsworth, van Dongen & Weston (2017). The use of the term “rainforest” alone is an attempt to tap into the adoration held for the grandeur of the ecosystem of the rainforest instilled in many. Seed is suggesting one should revere and protect the ecosystem of the microbiome in the same way. The cultural focus on keeping the rainforest untouched by man also works to suggest that the ecosystem should be as close to natural as possible. The idea that one is like a rainforest brings the human closer to a form nature that should be untouched by man and away from modern perspectives of humanity which are often enmeshed in technology and “scienced” human interventions like a synbiotic. These metaphors work to redirect the attention of those consumers who are apprehensive about overly “scienced” products by connecting the results of their product, an improved internal ecosystem, to a sense of goodness instilled through the comparison to the natural ecosystem of a rainforest by relying on the “nature as good fallacy” evident in our work. 


The addition of the term “brainforest” extends the ecosystem metaphor to science research suggesting that good science research is natural and synergistic, perpetuating a view where science is seen as being inevitable and “revealing” nature's work as opposed to being a result of human intervention. This appeal is not based in fact but in emotion. It speaks to a consumer’s desire to be closer to nature by indicating that the science in Seed’s work is natural. Seed is using these metaphors and slogans to suggest that using their product to improve the microbiome moves one closer to the ideal synergy of the rainforest. While their product is man made, it brings one closer to the natural state of a flourishing rainforest positing the outcome of a product as being natural as more important than whether or not science established a need for the product or the legitimacy of it.  


In combining these technical and personal arguments Seed is appealing to a new demographic of consumers we witnessed in our ethnographic work. These consumers are notably pro-science and are often passionate about veganism or climate change. Despite their pro-science views, the medical industrial complex is often viewed by these consumers as problematic. Often doctors are framed as insensitive or ignorant to female health in specific. Many have had their experiences invalidated by medical professionals and have turned to more “natural” remedies or supplements to address problems doctors offer little sympathy for. Seed offers a product for this audience. An audience that is health and science forward but has been neglected by the current medical establishment. 


Natural remedies are often all that is available without a diagnosis. Seed presents their synbiotic as a middle ground. Somewhere between a product with little research and heavy branding, and a prescription medication. This is where Care Of attempts to land too though they are notably less overtly science laden in their branding. While Outdoor Voices is not a supplement company, their ethos attempts to subvert some of the science defined versions of “health” that Seed and Care Of seem more closely aligned with. Our interviewees associated this traditional view of “health” with brands like Nike which emphasizes calorie burning and sweating. Moon Juice stands far from the other three brands in its alignment with alternative medicine and branding that Seed seems to be consciously pushing back against in their science heavy approach. Seed taps into the pro science ideologies of their consumer by foregrounding their research, their board of advisors, and their sustainability endeavors but they carefully couch these claims in natural appeals using language aesthetics such as those found in the crisp, clean, green packaging of its titular product. Seed is for the modern woman who cares for her health and who both embraces science and questions the medical establishments.

Seed Case Study


The Push to Alternative Health

There is always a reason for trends, and this new-age, natural healthcare hasn’t just popped out of thin air. This idea of personalized, intuitive health comes in direct response to the way women have been ignored by and pushed out of the traditional medical field for years. From endometriosis, to immune disorders, to thyroid diseases, to reproductive health, most women have found barriers to healthcare standing in their way, usually in the form of a doctor or nurse, the people we are told to trust the most. 

We’ll start with Person A*. Person A was one of our interview subjects, and upon being asked about her treatment in traditional medical settings, responded “I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot.”

“I’ve been having chronic infections. If I can share a quick anecdote... Back in December, I asked if I could please get a full exam with lab results so I could see what's going on. Is like mutated or is something wrong? They pretty much said like ‘No, you’re fine, don’t worry about it.’ They gave me a physical exam and then said ‘No, you look totally fine.’ And it was really in and out, like I was in the room for maybe like 8 minutes with my gynecologist. Now I have an infection again,  so I feel like it’s really frustrating to feel that way and feel like part of it is because i'm a woman... that they’re just like ‘Oh you’re just thinking it.’ You can’t help but feel like [gender is] part of it, even though my gynecologist is a woman also.”

“It’s like, I don’t know I feel like other -some- doctors may talk to me like I don’t know what’s going on when I’ve read for hours: articles that i've found online- scholarly articles- written by doctors or even a medical textbook i've found that I've been reading, so I kind of know what I'm talking about.. at least a little bit, right?”

“But sometimes I am made to feel like I don't know what I'm talking about. And this has happened at Cal Poly too. I've been… one time a nurse at Cal Poly said “Let me put this in music major terms speak for you,” and I said “Oh uhm yeah I know what acids and bases are,” like [laugh] what? So yeah, I don’t know. If I was a man would I be talked to that way? It’s been frustrating.”

Then there’s Person B*. “I have a really long and complicated history with the medical space where I was routinely dismissed for 30 something years because they didn't catch that I had celiac, they didn't catch that I had thyroid disease, and basically it's like every thing I brought forth was just dismissed because it was like ‘You're too young, you're too whatever to have this! It's stress! That’s your anxiety! It's in your mind.’ B.S. it's all of these different things.”

“When I finally got the right doctor at One Medical, he's like ‘You know what, let's try these tests. You're young for thyroid disease, but your grandmother had it. Let's see,’ and he's like ‘Oh no, you have celiac disease.’ When I was finally getting that treated, it felt like a superhero. It really feels like suddenly my life really started at 34. Because that's when, finally, for the first time, they figured out.”

“I've done all these things and so I don't necessarily believe that the medical establishment- like- really completely has all their shit together.”

Stories like Person A and B's are not uncommon, but Person B is one of the lucky ones who found treatment while Person A still struggles today. These girls are not alone with one in ten women suffering from endometriosis but next to no research surrounding it and many doctors still unable or unwilling to diagnose it; with black women sitting at five times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth, sometimes, this dismissal in the medical field can have dire consequences (Slawson, 2018).


It is no surprise that after this these highly clinical experiences and a build up of distrust, women are tired of traditional medicine, thus looking for alternative ways of healing for their very real concerns about their health and wellbeing. 

While these women have different personal values and concerns draw them to look for alternative wellness options; this does not mean they are somehow now “anti-science” (a fault in language that we previously used), but that their mistreatment has resulted in more motivating personal concerns that caused them to engage with these alternative options and brands that we studied (Lynch, 2020). 

Person A, who has spent hours reading up on her chronic infections could easily spend hours finding alternative treatments with brands poised and ready to offer up their best ‘natural’ fix-alls from supplements to exercises to life changes, all with hundreds of testimonials to their healing powers.

“If anything, the more I’ve learned about other women’s experiences throughout the years … I've started becoming a little more skeptical [of the medical field]?” 

These brands like Moon Juice use language and personal anecdotes to pull the customer in, making them feel more seen than they ever did by a doctor. Company’s understand the consumers personal experiences with womanhood, science, and knowledge. Founder Amanda Chantel Bacon offers up her own anecdote and experience being rejected by the medical field and instead turned to experts in “diet, lifestyle, spirit, and traditional wisdom.” By moving these technical arguments of health, science, and medicine into the personal sphere, emphasizing individual agency and personal experiences, it allows individuals to uncritically prioritize their individual and, rightfully, subjective views of how to “feel good.”

These women then become these same beacons of hope and healing for others being pushed out of the medical field.

Girl with Flower
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(Interview Findings Pt.1) Mapping the Experience

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(Interview Findings Pt.2) Web of Motivations


Buying a New Life

As these women are pushed out of clinical medicine and build their own knowledge and expertise surrounding their idea of health, many of these health and wellness companies are sitting ready to prey on these women who are looking for answers. With a strong brand identity, good aesthetics, an appeal to women, testimonials from others, and the offering of a solution, people are quick to buy into the lifestyle surrounding a brand. 

This isn’t just your everyday brand. These companies push personal sphere argumentation into the foreground by using appeals to their ideal “woman” in their inclusive rhetoric and visual design. They find their success in making women feel heard, and not necessarily treating or “healing” them. 

This new wave health and wellness brand has the consumer buying into what their own idea of health is. These consumers are able to buy into “feeling good” and what they define as “feeling good” as women and companies build their own expertise in relation to science, health, and knowledge through alternative learning means.

One example with this is Person B’s experience with Supergoop. “You can kind of sense, like look at it, that it's like all image, like sort of heavy, heavy on the pastels, heavy on the, like, ‘We're,’ you know ‘Where we look like we're good.’.” 

This language lends itself to creating an environment and brand that the consumer is a part of, which is then only exasperated when encouraging “rituals” and the joining of the “community”, “family”, or “tribe”. 

After being drawn in by the colors, the language, and the brand itself, a deeper connection is built upon reading reviews from adoring fans across the country. Person B already told us that “The first thing I do is, like, check for reviews out there of other people who've experienced it and then also like are they bought reviews... How did they get there? Are they genuine real people?” These testimonials create even more trust since the women feel that they themselves could be trusted to speak on their health concerns. Person A is one of those women. “If somebody asked me a question about periods or like infections,  like that type of thing, I wouldn’t feel totally uncomfortable giving them an answer. So I feel like I'm a little bit knowledgeable because I've been through a couple of experiences that I think would, you know, like help people learn about.” 

Just as these women believe they can be trusted, they trust other women to help guide their decisions under the guise that they have suffered similar treatment. When the consumer buys into the brand a friend or colleague recommends, they are buying into the relationship with that friend. That is how Person B first got into Care/of. “So my friend Ryan's girlfriend Sam... I was in New York staying with them, and she was taking her vitamins and, like, showed me the little message on it, or whatever, and I was like ‘Oh that's interesting. That's very interesting.’ because for me at that point, I was traveling all the time, like I flew, in 2019, 63,000 miles. And so I would be gone to New York for a week and then I'd be home for three weeks and then I'd be in San Francisco for a week and then I would be home for three weeks, then I'd be in Berlin for two weeks. And I wasn't able to take my vitamins regularly, like, I liked that they were in little packages that it's like a reputable source.”

Not only did this brand come highly recommended from someone she trusted, furthering the illusory truth effect and the idea that the more you here something the truer it is, but Person B was able to connect to the entire brand from user experience to the design. 

“I'm a sucker for good design, I mean it's, like, their-- their entire onboarding process is really well done. The quizzes, how they do it, the gamification of feedback, for when you take your vitamins. It's-- it's really it's really well done. And the messages are cute and messages are fun. Like, they just, everyone says something slightly different that it feels personalized in a nice way not a creepy way. I mean ultimately it's all. I mean vitamins should be personalized.  I've always taken vitamins before so it's not like Care Of, like, converted me to them but I think, like, they make the entire experience so easy. I would actually think about the design, but it's not-- it's not just the personalization, it's not just the content of the product. it's the overall, like, customer experience, like, user journey that they've created. Then, from the moment you download the app to order it or take the quiz on the website, to the moment that you actually like to take the vitamins is really, really well done, and you can tell that it is a design centric company.”

Already we see health and wellness penetrating all parts of life as Person B debates the idea of health and self-care. “It runs the gamut. I think that there are some things, like, on one end just like Goop like everything where it's, like, very much like, you know, the $150 rose quartz roller like that thing that mistakes luxury for self care. Whereas like self care is-- it's a way of living like it's not just taking a bath, it's not just doing things, it's like maintaining your sanity and your body, overall, and I think that there are a lot of brands out there that are trying to capitalize on this as a-- as a trend and that people are into and, sort of, I don't think it's always necessarily malicious but it's like there's definitely like, we can sell-- we can sell to you based on this. And it's sort of like the post ‘We will make you feel bad about yourself’ advertising that was like sort of nagging people into feeling that they were missing something and that ‘Well, maybe if I bought those pantyhose, then you know, then I'd be pretty’ like that type of thing. Where now it's like ‘Are you healthy enough? Are you? Are you doing this?’ and so it's like, it's-- it's a 2.0 so an evolved version of that guilt.”

This relationship between health, wealth, and aesthetics comes as no surprise as value is put on expense and beauty. Expensive things should, at the very least, be pretty and cheap things can be a good product as long as the aesthetics are still there and the product is still nice to look at. 

“Again, it runs the gamut like there's some things where I'm very wary of them like anything with a cleanse, anything that, like, is a quick fix, I'm immediately suspicious of because I'm like ‘Health and wellness isn't isn't a quick fix.’ like, it is the practice of well being.  Like sort of cumulative effects. I don't want a quick fix, I want maintainable habits that I can do long term that are going to contribute to my well being.” Here we see her justifying a type of behavior we see brands use to build brand loyalty where they integrate their products into your life with those “lifestyle changes” a “practice”.

Despite that realizations of the industry, consumers still walk the line of understanding how they are marketed to and continue to buy into it anyway. The idea of health as a lifestyle, a cumulative practice requiring maintenance and habit building. The idea that health is whatever the brand decides it is, and what they convince the consumer to buy into. Health is a look. Health is pain. Health is natural. Health is a life.

“And I think that women's products have at least gotten better like health and wellness’ sort of the overall focus rather than just like beauty and objectification of, like, “Make yourself smell good, make yourself look good make yourself,” you know, like, “more of a shiny package” and that it's a good shift in some ways. But it's like big corporations have caught on and it's like, you know, they'll have a shoe brand that seemed like a smaller thing that's being put out there, but it's like now it's owned by the same people. And it's like, I'm biased, like, in the clothing space, because I work for LuluLemon which is like, that is very much in the health and wellness space and our audience skews heavily female. But that said it's like I, I liked the overall sort of attitude of the company which is it's like it's not the, like, Nike, like, “hurt your way through it.” “Like the pain!” “Do it” kind of thing it's like, you know, if you like to run, run, if you want to do yoga, do yoga like whatever- however you want to sweat, the important part is that you're sweating.”

As a result of these messages and experiences, consumer buy-in shifts from being rooted in matters of efficacy and traditional expertise to values embedded in the brand and founder ethos. This intuition based health results in the same vein as buying into an aesthetic of health. These main values and personal concerns were around: science and health expertise and knowledge, wealth, social media and digital technology, personal. Rather, these products, brands, and services appeal to our personal concerns about our health and wellness as busy, “modern” individuals ― promising easier, more transparent, more attractive, and more liberating solutions through advanced scientific and technological developments (vitamins and supplements, subscription deliveries, digital communities).

Snow on Mountains
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