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High Fructose Corn Syrup – Big Business and the Little Man
The recent release in the US of adverts sponsored by the corn industry to promote high fructose corn syrup as being ‘not that bad’ has sparked much discussion about the ethics of marketing unhealthy products to the public.
These adverts were deeply misleading and obviously designed to capitalise upon the ignorance of consumers. Yet to anyone who knows the facts they were so wide of the mark they could almost have been a joke. When I watched them I nearly spat my breakfast onto the laptop.
This is, of course, nothing new, although the weasel tactics employed here do mark a new milestone in treating the consumer with contempt. Big business has been lobbying for, and marketing products which are patently bad for us for years. Slick advertising and well-groomed, plausible front-men have become the modus operandi for companies peddling ostensibly unacceptable products to somehow acquire for them a veneer of acceptability.
The sugar lobby are amongst the worst offenders. When you see the roll-call of garbage-peddlers who were in league with the Sugar Association as they tried in 2003 to strong-arm the World Health Organisation into withdrawing healthy eating guidelines, it’s not hard to see their angle. The story was reported in guardian.co.uk in April 2003, entitled ‘Sugar industry threatens to scupper WHO.’
The tobacco industry, after all these years, still wheel out wheezing spokespeople in times of crisis to advocate ‘freedom of choice’. One can’t help feeling as if these self-confessed smokers and advocates of choice are in some way being exploited, in spite of their clear complicity.
Pharmaceutical companies are the toughest bunch of all because their products are ostensibly acceptable. Perhaps this is how they managed to ease themselves into a position of almost unassailable power. For so long everyone just assumed they were the good guys – we took our eye of the ball. Now, when find that they are funding lavish trips for doctors to acquire influence (guardian.co.uk/society/2008/aug/23/health.pharmaceuticals), we have become aware of their true might.
The bigger the business, the greater the power and the slicker the machine. Provided someone in a well-cut suit with a good haircut can keep a straight face whilst saying advocating moderation and groundlessly refuting compelling and damning evidence then somehow, by sleight of hand and sheer chutzpah they get away with it. We are hypnotised by the gibberish, mesmerised by the gloss.
Not Fundamentally Evil
Naturally, it is tempting to brand these people and the companies they work for as bad, or even evil; but the uncomfortable truth is that these people are probably no more or less evil than you or me. They are just doing their job and too lazy, broke or ignorant to confront the fact that their job indirectly causes suffering.
In my line of work I am indirectly involved in the promotion of some of the products I rail against in this blog. Shame on me, you might say. Why don’t I quit my job and get new job planting trees? Money. Security. Ambition. Hypocrisy, perhaps. But I promise I am not a bad person.
Likewise, the companies cannot, by definition, be evil. They are simply a collection of people, policies and processes that have evolved under the system we know as capitalism. The company is owned by the shareholders but run by the employees. The shareholders want the company to continue making profits because this pays their bills. To keep the shareholders happy the employees must take whatever actions are most likely to keep the company making profits so that their wages continue to be paid and they can pay their own bills.
Even the shareholders are arguably no worse than the employees themselves. You could question the ethics of their investments but I am guessing that for the most part they are not bad people.
The Corporation as a Sociopath
In the film The Corporation, the way companies behave was examined in the context of psychiatry. The conclusion was that when examined in these terms, companies exhibit the traits of a sociopath. In other words, someone
…who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience
I believe this is fundamentally at the root of many of our problems with big business pushing products that are bad for us. A collection of people with no particular desire to harm others, when assembled into a group under the corporate system, end up conspiring to do so. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
The majority of the time, this is not a problem. Most companies are making products that people want to buy. We have regulations that ensure those products meet certain standards and laws to enforce those regulations; and even in the worst companies (such as tobacco manufacturers) there will be a presumption to favour the consumer’s wellbeing when there is more than one choice but no effect on profit.
Painting themselves into a Corner
The problem comes when two circumstances align.
First, product development accelerates faster than research and regulation. HFCS is a good example – if we had known about its effects when it was first being introduced into foods, would it have got this far? Banning something on which few profits depend is easy because there are no lobbies. Maybe the research was there but the regulators we slow. Either way, the problem is that very often, the organisations developing the products have more money to spend than the researchers and regulators.
Second – and this is the key one – a company gets itself into a position where its financial wellbeing depends on continuing to sell a product that turns out to be bad. It paints itself into a corner.
In the case of tobacco companies, there really was nowhere for it them go with their products when it started to become clear that tobacco was a killer. Even if the CEO stood up at the board meeting and said I think we should fold the company because we sell poison, the board would oust him; and even if the board agreed with him, they could not get it past the shareholders, who, after all, own the company; and the shareholders are not going to throw away their investment. If they were that way inclined, their money would be invested elsewhere.
The corn industry, at some point, decided that HFCS was the way forward. They invested in infrastructure and supply chains and developed a healthy customer base. They got themselves to the point where a lot of their revenue depended on HFCS and for them it’s a no-brainer: they must find a way to preserve that revenue stream using whatever means necessary. When someone’s back is against the wall, they act unreasonably – this appears to apply to sociopaths too.
Are we Doomed?
Don’t get me wrong – there are some bad people out there. I have made some assumptions and simplifications to allow me to develop my point. Clearly there have been and continue to be individuals in companies who themselves behave psychopathically and could reasonably be called bad; but stick with me here – what I am saying is that for the most part this is not the case. For the most part, people are just doing what they must to live their life. They have constructed a view of the world to allow them to live their lives without daily fretting.
Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.
~Demosthenes, prominent Greek statesman and orator of ancient Athens.
So are we doomed? I don’t believe so. The good news – or at least the best news we can hope to get under the circumstances is that the amorality of companies presents as much of an opportunity as it does a threat. They are, for the most part, interested in just a couple of things – self-preservation and profit.
Companies usually come into being when someone decides they can make money from selling something. It’s unlikely any of the companies that began refining sugar in the 18th and 19th centuries in England had any idea their product would become the scourge of the western diet. If they had seen similar opportunities in the penicillin market no doubt they would have been equally inclined to make that (although of course it would not be discovered until the 20th century.)
Companies Follow the Dollar
If the bigwigs at British American tobacco discover that that tobacco, when treated in a certain way produced the most alluring, harmless aromatic scent that consumers were just crazy about and would pay twice as much for, you can bet they’d have their business realigned accordingly within months. In the context of a burgeoning market for potpourri, you can also bet their cigarette manufacturing arm, with its attendant legal and regulatory burdens, would quietly dwindle to nothing within a decade. Companies follow the dollar, pure and simple.
McDonalds, that arch-villain of the food world, bought Pret a Manger in 2001. Now I’m not saying Pret a Manger sells healthy food – a recent UK TV program about sandwiches disabused me of any such notion – but next to McDonald’s own food, Pret’s is a shining beacon of nutritional excellence. The point being, McDonalds is getting a whiff of the coffee and investing strategically. They sense a shift towards the healthy option and are getting ready to move with the times. They are not passionate about selling burgers – they sell them because right now that’s where the money’s at.
Have you ever watched a game of soccer being played by young kids? They scuttle around the pitch in a group, following the ball wherever it goes. For grown-up aficionados of the game this is an amusing spectacle, but for the kids, who at this age have largely their own self-interest in mind (they just want to kick the ball), it makes perfect sense. Companies follow the dollar like these kids follow the soccer ball; and since it’s our dollars they are chasing, that makes us – the consumers – the ball.
In such games, the referee’s job is to make sure the players behave themselves during the scramble for the ball; but since young children have not yet grasped the concepts of fair play and rules, this is not an easy task. If the teacher is one of those well-intentioned but bumbling types, easily manipulated by the kids’ pleas, then the game can degenerate, with the rules being followed only in the loosest sense. The regulators and lawmakers, particularly those responsible for nutritional regulation, are this kind of referee.
Balance of Power in Our Favour
So let’s examine the balance of power between big business and the little man. There are three key ways that companies are able to exert influence:
Marketing. As we have seen from the HFCS adverts, companies can employ slick techniques to convince consumers they should buy products.
PR. Companies routinely use the media to their advantage by releasing stories to show their products in a positive light.
Lobbying. Vast sums of money are spent on legal and professional services with which companies put pressure on the regulators to make decisions favourable to their interests.
On the other hand, there are four key groups who can influence companies:
Consumers. If we don’t buy the product, companies will not make money out of it and will look for other things to sell.
Shareholders. Each year, they take part in a meeting at which they can table motions that affect company policy and lobby other shareholders to vote on them.
The Media. It has the power to publicly bring companies to account for misdeeds and educate the public about products.
The Regulators. I include in this category the lawmakers and government. They can remove products entirely from circulation or make life difficult for companies to make money from them, for example through taxation or stringent regulations.
On the face of it, companies are at a disadvantage – they are being influenced from all directions and have comparatively fewer ways to exert their own influence. More importantly, if you examine the ways they can be influenced, the consumer has the power to act either directly or indirectly in all cases.
Companies throw billions at the means influence they do have – lobbying, marketing and PR. They would regard these activities as pivotal to their success. If as much effort was devoted to the ways we can influence companies, the balance of power would begin to shift to the little man. In this battle, effort equates to money and although the companies have a lot of money which buys a lot of effort, even the vast coffers of entire industries could not buy enough effort if every consumer exerted their potential influence in the same direction.
If consumers buy less of a product, companies make less money out of it and focus their attention elsewhere. Many of us make compromises for the sake of convenience or cost so we all have an opportunity to influence in a small way. It may not feel like it makes any difference if we stop buying that once-a-week trail-mix bar because it has some kind of corn syrup in – but it does. The company manufacturing those bars will be watching sales like a hawk. If sales drop even a little, they run focus groups. In those groups, someone like you will tell them why they stopped buying the bars.
We are the Media
There was a time when the little man would sit at his desk writing letters to newspapers complaining about the world. They would rarely be published or used as the basis for a story.
With the advent of the Internet, particularly what has been dubbed ‘web 2.0’, this has profoundly changed. Now you can contact the media and companies much more easily and free of charge. Just find the website, write an email and boom, you’ve scored a point for the little man. Many news websites allow you to comment on stories now – so there is even a guarantee that your views will be published.
And that’s the point – now we are the media. The fact that you are reading this blog proves that; and you don’t have to be a blogger to make your views known – the participatory web has generated a wealth of opportunity for the little man to seize control from companies. Don’t like the corn industry’s adverts? Create a spoof and post it on YouTube. If you make it funny enough it might even get more views that the originals. In fact by way of example, I have gone ahead and done just that, there is a link at the bottom.
Companies are scared of the pace at which technology and the socialisation of media is changing. They have accepted that they will, for the foreseeable future, be one step behind the consumer in this medium – it’s up to us to take advantage of that.
Contact the Regulators
Just as it has become easy to contact companies and the media thanks to the Internet, likewise the regulators are suddenly within easy reach. Formerly these bodies were remote and almost mythical, mentioned in the news but never seen anywhere else. Now they have websites and can be found in search engines or linked to on blogs and other sites. In many cases, regulators welcome comments and complaints from the public and will act on the consumer’s behalf in disputes.
Even politely acknowledged emails sent to governments make an impact – someone has to read these emails and someone else takes note of the numbers of emails about a certain topic. Someone else then looks at these numbers and decides what issues matter to the public so they can advise politicians on what to talk about in speeches or propose as legislation.
Clearly the regulators and lawmakers read and are affected by the media, so the little man’s influence can come from more than one direction for the regulators.
Become a Shareholder…or Don’t
The public ownership of companies may be at the root of company psychopathy, but it nevertheless represents an opportunity for the little man to influence company behaviour in more ways than one.
First, by ethical investment. Share value is important to companies and influences their power. If investors go out of their way to avoid funds, banks and other financial instruments or bodies that are known to invest in companies they disapprove of, they make a difference. There are a growing number of ethical funds and financial institutions out there and although there may not yet be any who avoid investing in the corn industry, they are certainly addressing issues like tobacco and fair trade.
Alternatively, become a shareholder activist. In May 2008 UK TV Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall bought a stake in UK supermarket behemoth, Tesco and tabled a motion for the June meeting of shareholders, calling for changes to animal welfare. He persuaded the holders of £3m worth of shares to vote in his favour, but unfortunately lost. Nevertheless, this shows what can be done with shareholder power and of course even though he lost, he scored a big win via the media coverage. (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall calls on Tesco shareholders to protest over cheap chickens.)
Corporate Social Responsibility
The existence of corporate social responsibility (CSR) bears witness to the influence we can have over companies. If companies are interested in the dollar and self-preservation then CSR proves that companies realise that our opinion has the ability to make or break them. Now companies are falling over themselves to prove how ethical they are. If you search in Google for CSR plus the name of a major company you will invariably find well-crafted policies, open forums or other web sites designed to show that the company cares. Even British American Tobacco has found a way to contrive a veneer of caring.
Psychopaths will often feign emotions they are not capable of having in order to achieve their objectives; but from the little man’s perspective it matters not how genuine the sentiment is when companies flash us their best smile – what matters is that they are doing it.
I’ll end with a quote from Adam Smith, Scottish moral philosopher and a pioneer of political economy:
Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.
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