Thursday, May 10, 2007


Obesity laden burgers, cancer causing cigarettes, liver damaging alcohol, pesticide infected cold drinks... advertising is unethically selling everything! It’s time we protested! Angrily!

We are so busy working, earning a living, spending, buying things, that many a time, we lose focus of the big picture. We see advertisements and confuse dreams with reality. Sometimes, these dream merchants sell us products, rather, manipulate us into wanting things we don’t really need. Sometimes they seduce us to buy things which are bad for us. More often than once, we find ourselves succumbing to dreams that these advertisers sell. Let’s take a few minutes to think – is it ethical?

All that glitters is not gold

Increasing competition, increasing clutter in the advertising space and increasing pressure force the companies to do almost anything, even making false claims just to sell. The softest targets and the easiest to convince are children – they may not have the purchasing power, but their persuasion power beats it all.

Back in 1979, it sold its first product, and since then, it has never looked back. The brand has created marketing history. Almost every country today sells McDonald’s Happy Meal. It started as a ‘Star Trek Meal’ – the first-ever toy promotion of a film. Today, the popularity of the Happy Meal toys even helps one judge the success or failure of the film at the box office. McDonald’s spends two billion dollars on advertising alone – most of it targetted at children. Yet, the not so happy fact is that its products are extremely high in fat/sugar/salt – one of the prime reasons for child obesity. A multinational analysis revealed that food advertisements comprised the major part of all advertising and 95% of them were foods high in sugar/salt etc. – all very harmful for children. Isn’t it time advertisers stopped using their commercial tactics on children?
Young adults watch the glitzy ads of cold drinks and guzzle down the images and the drinks – loaded with pesticides. The cold drinks sector in India is a big money-spinner, and its popularity has been growing among children and teenagers. It’s shocking, but the fact is “Thanda Matlab – Toxic Potion!”

Of the 34 brands of drinking water collected by a leading research and testing agency, none passed the test. From Bisleri to Aquafina to even the lesser known brands like Volga and Paras, all had high doses of pesticides. Yet, they are advertised as healthy and hygienic drinks. They are everywhere! Look around – in cinemas, department stores malls, parlours, restaurants, fitness centers. Today, a travel by car or train means – first, pack your mineral water. The fact is that pesticides are so harmful they can cause cancer and even damage the central nervous system. Yet, the ads want us to believe its “Boond Boond Mein Vishwas!”

Marketers or devil’s advocate?

It’s not that these companies are unaware of the damages and harmful effects of their products. They are as aware as tobacco companies are about the nicotine content in cigarettes. The 1999 film, The Insider, showed it all, when one of the employees of the company Philip Homes acted as a whistleblower and spilled the beans on a popular TV show called, 60 Minutes. It showed that tobacco companies intentionally targetted children and concealed the addictive nature of cigarettes. Thanks to him, Minnesota became the first state in USA to file an antitrust and consumer fraud lawsuit against the tobacco industry forcing the company to pay $6.1 billon as settlement charges – which is a helluva lot of money! Come to think of it, for years, the American Tobacco Company argued that “cigarette smoking is not injurious to health!”

Tobacco and alcohol advertising is banned in India. Then how do you justify the ‘Red and White Bravery Awards’ or the ‘Manikchand Filmfare Awards’? Teacher’s Whisky advertises for ‘Teacher’s Achievement Awards’, and Bacardi advertises its ‘Bacardi Blast Album’. Is such surrogate advertising right when the fact is that tobacco is the second major common cause of death and children start alcohol consumption at an age as early as 14 years?

‘Choice’ was advertised as a birth control pill with iron; however, it contained ingredients, which categorised it as a Scheduled H drug to be given only on prescription. Recently, Wings Pharmaceuticals flooded news channels with advertisements of a drug called ‘Diclowin Plus’, promoting it as an effective medicine for pain relief. However, what it hid from consumers was the fact that if the medicine was taken without a doctor’s prescription (and guidance), it could trigger off peptic ulcers, blood disorders, and ironically, even headaches.

Light at the end of the tunnel

It’s time companies did business with a sense of responsibility towards the society. The good news is that today, the consumer is becoming more and more aware. As David Ogilvy said, “The customer is not a moron... She is your wife!” Today, it pays to be ethical; and consumers are awarding ethical companies by both remaining loyal in the face of increasing brand choice, and sometimes even paying a premium for their products or services. Not just this, they are even punishing the unethical companies by avoiding their offerings and staging public boycotts. Today, the consumer wants to be sure that the product he is purchasing doesn’t harm the earth and the company is fair to the people who helped make it.

When local bottlers of Coca-Cola in Columbia used illegal paramilitary groups to intimidate, threaten and kill its workers, people the world over decided to boycott Coke. Students in British Universities removed Coke from their campus, gathered signatures against the ‘killer Coke’, and closed down so many bottling plants. Adidas too had to face the heat when consumers came to know that the company killed kangaroos to use their skin for manufacturing Adidas sneakers. Back in India, Pizza Hut claimed in its ads, “Our dough is fresh and not made in a factory like others!” – which was a false claim, and the ads were subsequently withdrawn. Sunfeast biscuits showed in their advertisements how the boy becomes taller instantly after eating the biscuits – conveying the message that biscuits were responsible for a person’s growth. The Advertising Council (ASCI) found it misleading and asked the company to withdraw the ad.

Customers have the power to purchase and to boycott products that are unethically made or marketed. As Sam Walton said, “The customer has all the answers... and all the money.” We, as individuals, have the power to choose. True advertising provides us choices, but as ethical consumers, we can decide what to buy and what not to. Erin Brockovich, a single unemployed mother whom no one took seriously, upturned the fortunes of The Pacific Gas & Electric Company and almost single-handedly brought the company down for polluting the city’s water supply. So go on, take charge – choose the right products, and for everything unethical, just say – STOP!

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