1 Oct 2013

Lies, damned lies and eating

I was pretty shocked to see this advertisement in a bus in Victoria (the capital of British Columbia). It may portray the "average" ice cream eater, but it omits the consequences of eating their product. My dad just had a quadruple bypass. It wasn't exactly because he was overweight (he's 80), but he DID have to stop eating ice cream a few years ago "to avoid heart trouble." Where is THAT moment mentioned?

In the last year, I have not changed my mind on banning advertising. If anything, I have an even stronger belief in that regulation. We have plenty of ways to discover new products, good products, and good businesses (e.g., word of mouth, reviews, consumer reports). Advertising, OTOH, is always aimed at making something look better than it is.

For example, what do you think you'll find in this product?

Perhaps four cheeses? Sorry! There's more fructose, salt, oil and corn starch than cheese!

Here's a simple regulation: images on labels -- if any -- should show ingredients in proportion to their presence in the product.

Bottom Line: Ban advertising as harmful to consumers; require truth in labeling.


Dan Bodine said...

Like that idea! (Increased Labeling) BUT...Which is why "our times" are so depressing now. Such "radical capitalism" practices of the food industry to threaten our health for the sake of corporate profits (by content dilution and/or substitution) is exactly the practice condoned by a Republican Congress--controlled, you might say, by the big contributions of the food industry lobbyists. Like this whole federal shutdown deal, appears to be a clear case of the "tail wagging the dog!" BUT!!

David Zetland said...

@Dan -- I agree with you, but I'd spread the blame not just to Democrats, but to politicians around the world who care more about money than their constituents.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Zetland,

I read what you wrote to my friend who does not have an econ background. Here's what she said: “That's a very subtle way to say (to consumers) I'm smarter than you, because you're not smart enough to on your own to figure out (when ads are being deceptive).”

These are my thoughts.

1) You have a preference for no advertising, which to some extent you can exercise on your own through various ways of ignoring advertising. I have a preference to have some ads, which I can exercise by paying attention to only the ads I am interested in. By making your preference into a law in the name of protecting consumers, you would be denying my preference.

2) There is a medicine I use daily to alleviate a relatively minor, yet annoying, chronic condition. It makes my life much more comfortable and happy. I learned about the medicine from ads for similar products. Would I have learned about it from other sources? Sure. Eventually.

3) Your allegation that advertising is “always aimed at making something look better than it is” is hard to prove. I would say that ads are always aimed at making a product or service look as good as it possibly can. I think consumers generally understand that.

Your two examples do not make your case. You complain that the ice cream ad “omits the consequences of eating their product.” The thing is, the consequences are not universal. Not everyone who occasionally eats ice cream gets heart disease. In fact, almost any food is dangerous if not eaten in moderation. Somewhere I saw a study that indicated rats got cancer from eating too many oranges in a lab. I can understand the circumstance of being concerned about your father's health. That's a very natural thing. My father was a fairly large man who struggled with his weight much of his adult life. He loved hot dogs, baked potatoes with butter and salt, and ice cream. He died in 1988 at the age of 56 from brain cancer.

I also don't find the 4-cheese ravioli label deceptive. The product name means that there will be the flavor of four different kinds of cheese and some of the cheese. It does not imply how much of the cheese is in the can. In fact, there are four cheeses listed, so the product name is accurate. Also, the ingredients seem to be exactly what one would expect from canned ravioli.

4) I believe ads help drive product improvement. Firms seek advantages from improved features (or completely new products). If those improvements can't be advertised so that the product can quickly sell, those potential advantages are greatly reduced. Therefore, your proposed ban on advertising would reduce the incentive to improve products or introduce new ones. One could argue about whether “new and improved” is really new and improved, but that judgment, like beauty, is largely in the eye of the beholder. A four-cheese can of ravioli might not be any better to you than a one-cheese ravioli. But someone else may feel quite differently.

5) If ads are banned there will be more black market advertising. A prohibition of advertising will not end it any more than the prohibition of alcohol or drug consumption ended the use of those products. There are already several forms of black market advertising: paid “product reviews”; bumper stickers for a product or candidate placed on stop signs, overpasses etc.; “viral” internet marketing. Expect more if ads are banned.

Everyone supports truth in labeling. There are already many regulations with that aim. They don't work perfectly. But they do work enough that one can pick up a can of ravioli and turn it over to find out exactly what is in the can listed in order from largest to smallest amounts.

Bottom line: Please don't seek to enforce your preferences at the expense of mine in the name of protecting me from my own lack of judgment.

Rich Mills

David Zetland said...

@Rich - I think you commented on the original no ads post, but I'll reply to your points here.

First, your friend's interpretation is novel. Do gun bans imply that we're not giving people credit for being able to defend themselves?

On (1), I am not denying your right to go FIND information. Ads are like litter. Some people ignore them, but others don't like it. No litter offends few people.

On (2), google, disease groups and doctors are FAR faster ads

On (3), I disagree. The label shows something that's not in the can. Regulations are written by lobbyists (cf., food pyramid). I prefer truthful information over manufacturer's "interpretations"

On (4), competition drives improvement. Loss of market share is far more threatening than talking socks.

On (5), we're getting that already (e.g., Facebook). I've been in "non ad countries" and their absence was relaxing, black market or not.

Your bottom line is straight out of MadMen. You may prefer Lucky Strike for its "Toasted" flavor, but the cancer is a sad side effect. We have LOTS of laws to protect you for your lack of judgement. Would you prefer to go to jail if you were in debt or go bankrupt? Bankruptcy protects you, and a ban on ads would as well. You could still smoke, or eat "fructose-salt-oil-corn starch ravioli" but at least I -- and many more people -- would not have to wade through lies all day.

ps/Recall the extra reasons: reducing rampant consumerism and redirecting media to the needs of consumers instead of advertisers (everything from Time mag to Facebook)

David Patrick Green said...

I'm on the Let's Ban Advertising Bandwagon - especially in public spaces where they are forced upon us. It does feel like "wading through lies all day".

Regardless of how one feels advertising may affect their own experience, I believe that a helpful way to look at this issue is to consider how it affects children.

Firstly, I believe that it is abhorrent that our culture allows advertisement to be directed at children, and a sign of a sociopath that an intelligent, mentally mature (?) adult would choose to make a living crafting advertisements to manipulate them. It's a blatantly unfair power balance and those that perpetrate this should be shamed out of town.

Secondly, consider the implicit messages that come through to those who are still physiologically immature and in the process of developing a concept of the world, and how they fit into it. Advertisement typically employ gross exaggeration (if not outright lying), and purposeful misrepresentation, normalizing pathological personality traits (lack of integrity, shamelessness…). And that's before considering the "sexification" of EVERYthing. It's challenging enough for the youth to navigate into maturity and adulthood in this day and age without these totally unnecessary additional toxic influences.

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