Multinational Monitor

JUL/AUG 2008
VOL 30 No. 1


No Escape: Marketing to Kids in the Digital Age
by Jeff Chester and Kathryn Montgomery

The Youngest Market: Baby Food Peddlers Undermine Breastfeeding
by Annelies Allain and Joo Kean

Intoxicating Brands: Alcohol Advertising and Youth
by David Jernigan

How Things Work: The FTC's Revolving Door
by Robert Weissman

Fighting Demons: Addressing the Perils of Financial Innovation
by Richard Bookstaber


Commercializing Childhood: The Corporate Takeover of Kids' Lives
an interview with Susan Linn

Pill Pushers: Pharmaceutical Marketing in an Overmedicated Nation
an interview with Melody Petersen

Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping
an interview with Bill Talen

The Debt Creators: Shady Lending, Misleading Marketing and Hard Times
an interview with José García


Letters to the Editor

Behind the Lines

Marketing Mania, Commercial Colonization

The Front
Freedom Flows in South Africa | Development and the Desert

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Greed At a Glance

Commercial Alert

Names In the News



Marketing Mania, Commercial Colonization

It’s easy enough to mock — though very hard to parody — the everyday excesses of commercialism run amok: the corporate-sponsored weddings, the tattooed advertisements (Goodyear’s Dunlop tire unit offers a set of free tires to anyone who will get the company’s flying-D logo tattooed somewhere on their body, and 98 people have taken up the offer, reports the AP), two-second radio ads, a proposed “official underwear” for the Sacramento police force, to name just a few.

But it would be a serious mistake to dismiss these commercial incursions as farce. As this issue of Multinational Monitor shows, they are emblematic of a marketing mania that has deeply perverse effects on society and that must be reversed.

Buying more
Corporate marketing campaigns aim to serve three overarching purposes: to encourage consumers to buy a particular product; to build brand reputation and loyalty; and to build a corporation’s image to enhance its political influence and reduce the risk of unwanted public control. At the end of the day, these distinct purposes all boil down to a single objective: Buy More.

Buying more, however, is often a bad — and frequently a dangerous — idea. When the products being marketed are inherently unhealthy, risky or subject to abuse, people and society are worse off when the “Buy More” message works, as it typically does.

The marketing of pharmaceuticals is one such example. As Melody Petersen explains in an interview on this issue, a focus on marketing has transformed the pharmaceutical industry, and much for the worse.

Direct-to-consumer ads have led millions to “ask their doctor” for drugs that don’t work, that they don’t need, or which are dangerous. Vioxx, the drug that the Food and Drug Administration’s Dr. David Graham says was responsible for 35,000 to 55,000 deaths, became a big seller on the back of a marketing campaign on which Merck spent hundreds of millions of dollars.

Big Pharma spends so much on advertising and marketing (more than $57 billion in 2004 in the United States alone, according to researchers Marc-AndrE9 Gagnon and Joel Lexchin) because it works. Direct-to-consumer ads yield more than $4 in sales for every dollar expended; and the industry carefully tracks its marketing to doctors — which is far more extensive than the ads to consumers — and knows how effective it is on a doctor-by-doctor basis.

Another area of abuse is baby food marketing. As Annelies Allain and Yeong Joo Kean show, the baby food peddlers continue to engage in unethical tactics around the world, despite a World Health Organization marketing code that has been in place for more than two decades. Industry marketing schemes lure mothers into using substitutes instead of breastfeeding. Breast milk is much more nutritious and nurturing, and decreases the risk of diseases, including diarrhea, that kill 1.7 million babies and children under five each year.

Alcohol advertising encourages more drinking, and more youth drinking and binge drinking. David Jernigan documents the sheer abundance of alcohol ads — more than two million TV ads in the United States, from 2001 to 2007 — and reports on research showing that alcohol advertising increases youth drinking rates.

The story is exactly the same, but even worse, for tobacco. In the United States, Big Tobacco spent $13.11 billion on marketing and promotions in 2005, the latest year for which official government data is available. The situation is much worse in developing countries. Researchers have shown repeatedly how marketing drives sales of a product that now kills five million people a year.

Marketing succeeds in transforming products that might be tolerable in moderation into serious public health hazards, as promotional efforts puff up sales. Case in point: soda, junk food and fast food sales have skyrocketed thanks in large part to omnipresent advertising campaigns, contributing to tripling of U.S. childhood obesity rates. Jeff Chester and Kathryn Montgomery show how the junk food purveyors are now migrating their efforts to the Internet and other digital platforms.

The damage from marketing is not just health related. In an interview, José García highlights the aggressive and deceptive marketing strategies of shady lenders. The mortgage crisis was juiced by brokers who went door-to-door pushing bad loans, as well as heavy advertising on TV and the Internet — all promoting unsustainable loans with complicated and poorly understood features, and premised on the housing bubble lasting in perpetuity. García explains how comparable marketing pushes have mired millions in usurious credit card deals, left students drowning in debt, and tricked the poor into taking loans with effective interest rates in the triple digits.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, commercialism’s ethos of “Buy More” is imperiling the planet. Overconsumption in rich countries is destroying ecosystems around the world, poisoning the air and water, and contributing very seriously to the overarching planetary threat of our time: climate change.

Commercial expansion
One perverse talent of Madison Avenue is its skill at inventing markets where none existed, or using marketing and branding campaigns to transform small markets into lucrative opportunities.

The most worrisome trend is the commercial assault on children. As Susan Linn explains in an interview, marketing to kids has grown exponentially over the last quarter century, leaping more than two orders of magnitude. Today, business spends well over $15 billion selling to kids — over TV, through the Internet, on cell phones, in computer games, at school.

The corporate colonization of childhood is altering children and youth culture, and developmental patterns. Linn explains how creative play is being overrun by the scripted and limited stories of technology-heavy toys and games. Young girls — “tweens,” ages 8-12 — are sexualized. Pervasive commercialism teaches kids to judge and interact with their peers based on what they have and what they wear, rather than who they are. The commercial model rewards conformity — even as it validates faux rebellion — and undermines diversity of thought, fashion, taste and culture.

Corporations are also aiming to colonize public space. Advertising or sponsorship arrangements are now routine for parks, bridges, subway stops, the sides of public buildings, schools, school buses, police cars, museums. The San Francisco subway system (and others) wants to broadcast ads on televisions on train platforms. The Smithsonian is beset with corporate sponsorships (for example, an insect zoo funded by Orkin). The Washington state ferry system is seeking advertisers and sponsors for on-board activities.

The commercial takeover of public space intrudes corporate values into the public sphere. It is bad enough when the mall replaces the commons as a place for people to meet. But now the commons itself is frequently being corporatized and commercialized. Commercialism degrades and undermines civic values, and offers instead the idea that everything is for sale.

Corporate commercialism is also, of course, colonizing the new media space. The Internet, which has nonprofit origins and, not long ago, a nonprofit ethos, is now driven by marketing strategies. Chester and Montgomery show one aspect of how the democratic communication, information-sharing and community entertainment possibilities of the Internet must compete with, and are often suppressed by, the corporate marketing-driven model.

Rolling Back Commercialism
The danger in highlighting the extraordinary reach of commercialism into society — including the make-you-smirk anecdotes, like proposals for ads on NASA space assets — is that it can convey the sense that marketing mania is unchangeable, an unalterable aspect of how society works.

This is not the case.

The proof is that things were quite different in the United States, not long ago. Marketing to kids was a tiny sliver of the business it is today. There were no drug ads on TV. Inherently deceptive mortgage loans were not peddled on a wide scale. No one thought about how to “monetize” public property with ad revenue.

The other proof is that, while commercial pressures are severe around the world, they are much more controlled in other countries. Many European countries do not allow product placement on television. Many limit marketing to kids (and some ban advertising on TV for kids all together). Direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals is banned in every industrialized country except for the United States and New Zealand.

It will not be easy to reverse commercialism’s march deeper and deeper into every recess of society and interpersonal interaction, but it can be done.

The most hopeful early signs are in communities around the United States, which are kicking marketers out of schools, or banding together to forbid new incursions from Bus Radio (a company that equips school buses with satellite radios so they can tune into advertising and music broadcasts) and other nefarious marketing schemes.

Organizations like Commercial Alert (with which Multinational Monitor’s Robert Weissman works) are trying to catapult this localized opposition into more far-reaching policy reform. There’s a long way to go.

A first step is to create ad-free zones. Schools should be at the top of the list. Public places, in general, should be free of commercial messaging, too.

A second measure is to eliminate brand advertising that promotes consumption of products society agrees it wants to discourage, or inherently promotes misuse of products. These would include cigarettes and alcohol in the first category, and pharmaceuticals in the second. If all-out bans turn out to be constitutionally proscribed in the United States, then the most aggressive restrictions possible should be imposed.

Third, there must be comprehensive measures to protect kids from predatory marketers. Advertising on television directed to children under 12 should be prohibited. Commercial Alert has proposed a Parents’ Bill of Rights that would protect the child-parent relationship from corporate interference. Additional measures will be needed to address the rush to the Internet and digital marketing to kids.

Fourth, the tax treatment of marketing and advertising needs to be given a hard look. Advertising expenditures are now treated as a legitimate expense, making them tax deductible. Eliminating tax deductibility in all or some cases — such as marketing directed to children under 12, as the Parents’ Bill of Rights recommends — would drastically alter the calculus of corporate advertisers.

Finally, the advertising and marketing that is permitted must be much more closely regulated. A whole new approach must be imposed on the feckless Federal Trade Commission, and other agencies with authority over deceptive marketing and inherently deceptive products.

The world can live with tattoo advertisements. But it cannot tolerate an unbridled commercialism riding roughshod over public health, authentic interpersonal relations, civic values and planetary well-being.


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