Slippery Slope of Advertising Deregulation: The Inalienable
Right to Mislead Millions
October 31, 2002
Just a few years ago, the practice of advertising prescription
drugs to us common folk was considered unethical. Nowadays
you can hardly watch TV for five minutes without some commercial
promising to cure the affliction it encourages you to be worried
about. And as the drug companies spend billions each year
on advertising, the formerly unethical is now acceptable,
I have a Master's degree in Mass Communication with a specialization
in Advertising from what is considered to be one of the best
communication schools in the country. (Not a shred of pride
here, believe me.) There we learned that the job of networks
is not to entertain people, but to deliver credit card-carrying
eyeballs to advertisers. TV shows and their stars are merely
the means of transportation. We also discussed the American
culture's fear of aging, the need of people to belong, and
how the things of consumerism are attempts to fill the void
so many of us feel. And while not cited on the syllabus, there
was no mistaking that we were to make the most of those fears
and those needs – not to mention actually helping to create
them - persuading people to buy things they don't need, convincing
them Brand X Wrinkle Cream is something they have no hope
of living happily without it.
After graduating, I worked as a creative concept developer
and copywriter, whoring my writing skills as I helped pimp
products to the masses. But as unapologetically manipulative
as my job sometimes was, there was always a line drawn in
the advertising sand. There were guidelines to strain against,
but ultimately follow. And there was an ethic, in my agency
at least, of thou shalt not distort the facts beyond recognition
and thou shalt be able to look yourself in the mirror after
an ad campaign. But that was way back in 1989. And just as
ChemLawn renames itself TruGreen: the times, they are a' changing.
The FDA, absolutely, positively, cross-my-heart-hope-to-die
not a special interest lackey, whose job it is to police the
food, drug and cosmetics industries, says it is committed
to reducing false or misleading advertising. But somehow,
there seems to be a disconnect between what it says it wants
and what it is doing. This year it sent out 60% fewer warning
letters than last year to advertisers regarding misleading
or distorted facts. Representative Waxman from California
notes that, “there has been a dramatic drop in enforcement
actions.” These warning letters are the first step in the
FDA's policing tactics. Maybe there were 60% fewer infractions,
you argue. As drug ads are burgeoning, drug sales are booming
and the pharmaceutical companies have ever-growing political
clout, this is highly unlikely. In addition, those in the
industry most assuredly know that at this very moment the
FDA is actively considering relaxing the advertising rules
that govern them. How hard it must be to follow what you know
might soon be outdated rules.
And even if the FDA was handing out warning letters as fast
as they could print them out, the Bush administration is preparing
to relax regulations for these ads even further, potentially
tying the hands of the FDA. The administration reportedly
plans to argue that drug manufacturers and their ads are protected
under free speech. (Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense
in 1965 said the bombing raids north of Saigon that killed
2 million civilians were a form of communication. Dear God,
please don't tell Bush's handlers and speechwriters that.
Because before you know it, they'll have him spouting out
that bombing the smithereens out of Iraq is a form of free
speech and assassination of evil foreign leaders is just a
little constitutionally protected chat with their governments.)
Last time I checked, the Constitution is supposed to protect
the Homo sapiens, you say. You better check again. Corporations
are in the process of getting the same rights as humans. And
if people really understood what giving corporations personhood
status meant, they'd be scared and angry and calling their
Congressperson. But most don't and most won't because who
is going to tell them? Certainly not the corporate media.
And except for a conscience-guided few – and we have one less
now with the death of Paul Wellstone - politicians aren't
going to be the ones who mention it on the campaign trail.
And neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can spare a
finger to point at their fellow congressperson in their hallowed
halls because their hands are too busy counting out corporate
Granting corporate personhood implies, among a great many
other things, that just like you can tell a little white lie
by distorting or omitting facts to your kid or your boss,
perhaps in the name of the greater good, corporations may
distort and omit, too – in the name of their greater good.
And in CorporateSpeak, the greatest good is maximum profits
The difference between you and a corporation is that the
information corporations might distort is in newspapers, magazines,
on the sides of buses, and on national TV. The great majority
of people take what's in these ads as undisputed fact because
we can't bear to believe companies might just blatantly misrepresent
themselves or we trust there are laws and watchdog agencies
making sure advertisers tell the truth.
If the FDA continues loosening enforcement and the administration
pushes deregulation this will, no doubt, pave the way for
advertisers of all stripes to do the same. Political ads,
car ads, baby food ads all may follow in the path of the drug
ads, if they haven't already. And so begins the dangerous,
slippery slope, starting from the right (of those with enough
money) to advertise their goods and services sliding on down
to the right to mislead millions under the protective umbrella
of the Constitution.
And corporate advertisements could very well and quite legally
Spot: Our Product Cures Everything!!
We see women,
dogs, Latinos, Asians, elderly, adolescents, butterflies,
those with mental illness, skinny, stout, blind, beautiful,
wheelchair users, gays, transgenders and newborns – a veritable
cross section of America plays, laughs, and picnics in a park
resplendent with flowers and green grass and never-ending
voice, warm and encouraging):
It is a
good time to be alive because finally, the day has come: there
is a little periwinkle pill that cures everything. Fighting
a cold? Throw away your tissue. Got breast cancer? We cure
breast cancer in 44% of our patients. Got a deviated septum?
Not to worry! Can't breathe? Now you will able to breathe
a sigh of relief as you take your periwinkle pill just once
a day. And there are no side effects worth mentioning!
(in 4-point type at bottom of screen, flashed for 3 seconds):
We cannot substantiate the above claims. Furthermore, we do
not have to substantiate any of the above claims. But we included
this disclaimer at the behest of our yipping attorneys – just
to be safe. But remember we don't have to tell you that of
those 44% of people whose breast cancer we cured, 95% then
died from uterine cancer as a result of using our product.
It's not a lie, really. It's just a little omission. And we
didn't say our product can fix your deviated septum, we just
said you shouldn't worry about it. And about those side effects
that aren't worth mentioning: some of us have suggested to
the FDA that they get rid of the requirement of mentioning
side effects altogether. We know if you understood the risks
from the side effects, or how little we've actually tested
this product; you wouldn't beg your doctor to prescribe it
in the first place. So, it sure isn't worth mentioning - to
us anyway. No lie. Just a different way of looking at it.
All this distorting and omitting may not get us into heaven,
but it's kosher down here on earth. It's a guaranteed right,
for us at least. You dissenter types who are against us and
not with us, your free speech rights are, well… sorta free.
You can say whatever you want. Go ahead. But, you run the
risk of getting detained at airports and spied on and things
like that (Our little chartreuse pill cures dissent - and
diarrhea and toenail fungus - by the way.) Unlike you, we're
betting that our CEOs and their advertising agencies will
never get stopped at airports for exercising their right to
free speech in their misleading ads.
When Bush comes to town to give a speech, you human people
who want to express your dissenting views get cordoned off
and watched over at the little designated 'Free Speech' area
- far, far from Bush and the cameras. But for us corporate
'people,' the world is our Free Speech Area - and our Free
Enterprise Area, too. This privilege is extended to all our
big business brothers (not too many sisters) from every sector
of corporate America.
In fact, our amalgamating corporate plutocracy can all but
do whatever it wants. We can pollute where we want. (The guys
over at the EPA tell us that the Bush administration is in
the process of further easing the enforcement of industrial
air pollution regulation. So, I guess we'll just have to make
more pills to mask the symptoms of asthma and the other diseases
the pollution causes.) We can buy off politicians when we
want and influence commissions that are supposed to investigate
our transgressions. We contributed to the campaign funds of
many of their members, you see. We were planning ahead. Some
of them even used to work for us or served on our boards.
We helped make them rich. They like us. Come to think of it,
in many cases they are we. And we are they.
We can union bust when we want. (The government, God love
it, likes to help us out on that one.) We can get you to think
it is really cool to pay us incredibly inflated prices to
wear our clothes and then walk around and advertise our brand
logos all over you. We can misrepresent our earnings when
we want; allow our CEOs to earn more than 400x what our average
worker makes (often helping those workers lose their life
savings while we CEOs skip off to our vacations with our multi-million
dollar bonuses with hardly a slap on the wrist). We can exploit
foreign workers when we want (regularly buying off those delightfully
obliging foreign leaders to do so). We can despoil the cultural
and environmental diversity of the Earth.
We can put mom and pop stores out of business, replacing
them with multi-national superstores, corroding local economies
and their sense of community, thus putting the wealth and
power into the hands of but a very few. We can put our money
in offshore accounts to avoid taxes when we want. We can distort
and omit facts in our ads like this one when we want. Whew,
that's a lot. And we know it. We are downright giddy, drunk
from our power and our freedom. We're dancin' the Corporate
Jig all the way to our foreign bank accounts. And there's
no end in sight! God, it is good to be us.
Thank you George Bush.
Thank you to former administrations, too.
Thank you Congress.
And most of all, thank you American people for your blind
devotion and your unquestioning willingness to go into debt
for our profit.
WE LOVE YOU.
FADE TO BLACK.
Carol Norris is a reformed advertising copywriter, psychotherapist
and freelance writer. She can be contacted at email@example.com