The Inalienable Right to Mislead Millions
by Carol Norris
October 31, 2002
Just a few years ago, the practice of advertising prescription drugs to us common folk was considered unethical. Now days 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, ubiquitous.
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 campaign contributions.
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 for shareholders.
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 run amok:
60 Second Spot: Our Product Cures Everything!!
EXT. PARK - DAY
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 joy.
(woman's 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!
DISCLAIMER (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, psychologist and freelance writer based in San Francisco, CA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.