Making Munichs for Marketers: The Limits of “Consumer” Activism

Remember the much-ballyhooed tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s, the ones that were supposed to cripple Big Tobacco and then slowly starve it of new smokers?

Guess what?

1. Since the end of the publicity blitz surrounding the lawsuits, the U.S. teen smoking rate, the key to the industry’s future domestic profits, has stopped falling, and stayed steady at a substantially high level.

2. The U.S.-based tobacco corporations are about finished restructuring themselves to shield their extremely profitable global operations from U.S.-based penalties.

This is what happens when “consumer” activists do what they normally do, which is struggle mightily to summon the courage to offer their opponents what Neville Chamberlain offered Hitler. Afraid of connecting the dots between the three c-words — class, capitalism, and “consumers” — the aspiring anti-powers-that-be invariably fail to acknowledge that the weeds they are trying to pluck have roots. As a result, they invariably yield mere appeasements, rather than adequate, lasting changes.

Consider the similar case of “consumer” activists’ efforts to draw corporate food marketers to meet them in Munich about eroding childhood nutrition. A couple years back, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood threatened to sue the Kellogg Company over its unyielding peddling of a wide variety of marketing-friendly (high flavor, low nutrition) foods to the increasingly obese U.S. population of children.

The threat extracted a settlement.

Q: How much better has this settlement proven to be than Chamberlain’s famous piece of paper?

A: None.

The document itself begins by permitting Kellogg to promulgate extreme falsehoods about itself:

“We remain first and foremost committed,” its opening paragraph reads, “to meeting our consumers’ changing needs.”

This massive lie begs two questions:

1. If “consumer” needs are king, why is it necessary for “watchdogs” to police Kellogg’s behavior?

2. If putting “our consumers'” (note the possessive formulation) needs ahead of Kellogg investors’ interests were ever actually adopted as actual company policy, how many minutes it would take Kellogg shareholders to eject their derelict board of directors?

In reality, as any glance at kids’ TV will confirm, all the settlement did was tweak Kellogg’s advertising strategies slightly. Most often, they simply tack on some unrealistic pep-talk about “getting outside” for 15 minutes, as if that will either work or compensate for their shameful promotion of junk foods.

One other effect of the Kellogg/CSPI/CCFC settlement has been voluntary adoption of similar marketing “guidelines” by other corporations.

The meaningfulness of such progress can be gleaned from one of the products that Kraft Foods’ Post Cereal division now sells as part of its “Sensible Solutions” program. Here you go, health food enthusiasts:

Part of a “balanced” society? Go ask Adolf…

Justice? It’s Vytorin.

kinuko y. craft painting

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
- Langston Hughes

The 01/21/08 issue of Advertising Age reports:

“Merck & Co. and Schering-Plough Corp. [the makers of Vytorin] kept under wraps for more than a year findings that Vytorin does not deliver results.”

All the while, Merck and SPC continued their $100+ million television and print ad campaign claiming the precise opposite.

Now, overall, the official, court-certified FTC definition of what constitutes fraud in advertising is laughably lax, if you understand how the marketing process works and how utterly central planned deception is within it.

But this particular case easily and obviously crosses even the ridiculously loose, faux-naive fraud standards that are alleged to be in place. The planners of this affair belong in prison, and the corporations involved ought to be severely penalized, if not simply nationalized and restructured to make them what they allege themselves to be — namely, inventors and manufacturers of genuine modern medicines.

None of this will happen, of course. At most, the “Democratic Party” wing of the reigning two-party Business Biumvirate (the Democrats, of course, being the “party” that killed the Independent Counsel Statutes after their great triangulating hero, Killiam Klinton, perjured himself) will stage a show “hearing” in Congress, where they may possibly extract some “sincere” verbal regrets about managerial “mistakes.”

After all, who were Merck and Schering-Plough executives to say that the evidence of Vytorin’s ineffectiveness might not someday be reversed by further studies? You know — kind of like who were the Democrats to say that illegally invading Iraq on blatantly false and irrelevant pretexts was anything to actually vote against? Nod, nod, wink, wink, “regret,” “regret”…

Actual law enforcement, meanwhile, is now strictly for the little people in this country. Let them eat Value Meals and Vytorins, in jail, if need be.

“Arbeit Macht Frei”: Our Version

Capitalism does a few things well. Cheapening and distributing portable camera technology is one such thing. Using my camera phone, I snapped this one at a Target store this weekend:

This “limitless choices” claim, of course, is U.S. corporate capitalism’s version of the cruel slogans the Nazis hung over the gates of their domestic death-camps. The only difference is that our underlying population believes the slogans.

This is tragic, since one thing that is distinctly untrue about corporate capitalism in the United States is that it is a system that provides “limitless choices.” On the contrary, it is utterly dependent upon the careful policing of the realm of collective, political, macro-level choices. From transportation to education to war to the ability to launch public enterprises, the general population is VERBOTEN from meaningful participation in setting priorities and policies.

And, even at the vaunted micro level of personal shopping choices, big business marketing is a trillion-plus-dollars-a-year juggernaut, the sole purpose of which is to manipulate and addle “consumer behavior” in favor of corporate requirements.

In America, you can choose from a huge array of blue jeans, but, barring a revolution, you cannot hope to alter the murderous and suicidal path of your own nation’s normal development.

Inequality Among “Consumers”

“Consumer” is a rotten word, a naked, vision-stunting bias parading as a basic, natural term of modern democratic life.  Whenever you hear yourself being called a “consumer,” you should reach for your gun.

Contrary to both mainstream dogma and received cultural-leftist/neo-Marcusian canon, access to commodities has never been anything like equal in the United States.  In fact, in this epoch of escalating income and wealth polarity, the newest statistics show that inequality among U.S. “consumers” is now at an all-time high.

Bradley Johnson of Advertising Age magazine’s “American Demographics” column reports:

Spending patterns vary from rich to poor.  The government’s latest Consumer Expenditure Survey shows spending by the top fifth of households (pretax income of $85,147-plus) rose 8.1% in 2005 vs. 2004.  That’s a bigger percentage boost than for any other income group.

The top fifth collected 50.4% of pretax income and accounted for a record 39% of consumer spending in 2005, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Those affluent households outspent the bottom three quintiles combined. Spending disparities have grown: The bottom fifth (pretax income below $17,579) did just 8.2% of 2005’s consumer spending, a record low.  (Advertising Age, January 15, 2007, p. 29)

As Johnson also notes, “[t]he affluent account for massive shares of spending in key categories.”  In the service of publicizing this reality and helping MR folks rethink “consumption,” I decided to calculate some of the key ratios.  The numbers signify the average spending of the richest 20 percent of U.S. households as a percentage of the averages among the poorest 20 percent and the middle 20 percent, respectively, in various “consumer” areas, all for the year 2005.

Housing: the richest quintile spends 3.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.1 times as much as the middle

New Vehicles: the richest quintile spends 19.2 times [not a typo!] as much as the poorest; 3.4 times as much as the middle

Dining Out: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.2 times as much as the middle

Life Insurance, Social Security and Pensions: the richest quintile spends 28.8 times [not a typo] as much as the poorest; 3.9 times as much as the middle

Education: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as poorest; 5.7 times [not a typo] as much as the middle

Reading Material: the richest spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.3 times as much as the middle

Apparel: the richest quintile spends 4.3 times as much as the poorest; 2.4 times as much as the middle

Alcohol: the richest quintile spends 4.6 times as much as the poorest; 2.2 times as much as the middle

Overall “Consumer” Spending: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.3 times as much as the middle

As you might guess, there is only one exception to this pattern: tobacco.  In that area, the richest quintile spent only 107% of what the poorest quintile spent, and only 74% of what the middle quintile spent.

Politics and Political Marketing

Yesterday, the dreadful war criminal Nancy Pelosi visited Portland, Oregon, my hometown. While here, she repeated her Dreadfulcratic Party’s official campaign theme, which is that the blatantly immoral and illegal Iraq War, which she helps fund, is primarily the fault of Iraqis, and then secondarily

Read morePolitics and Political Marketing

Racism in Corporate Marketing

In the last years before his historically catastrophic assassination, Martin Luther King used to lament to his closest comrades that he was “afraid we’re integrating ourselves into a burning house.” How apt that fear turned out to be is still under-appreciated. Among the burning rooms that has yet to be discussed is this one: corporate marketing.

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