Hazardous Marketing?

Hazardous marketing is a phenomenon worth thinking about. Just like any other tool, product, or practice, marketing can help or harm, depending on how it’s conceived and applied. Food marketing is a consumer science that can cut both ways — sometimes nudging consumers toward healthful choices and sometimes exploiting hedonic impulses for profit at the expense of our health.
Joe Camel

Hazardous marketing is easy to recognize in the form of outright consumer fraud. But what about subtler forms? Joe Camel was a subversive marketing tool used to recruit underage smokers for years before people objected. But now most people can recognize the harm of that tactic and he’s gone.

Marketing subprime mortgages to millions of people who ultimately could not afford them turned out to be a hazardous marketing practice for the whole economy. But it seemed like a good idea at the time. Subprime mortgages proliferated in support of President George W. Bush’s vision:

We can put light where there’s darkness, and hope where there’s despondency in this country. And part of it is working together as a nation to encourage folks to own their own home.

Policymakers on both sides of the aisle supported this goal.

Two skeptical commentaries on food marketing this week give us a lot to think about from sharply contrasting perspectives. Mark Bittman — a vocal critic of “Big Food” — challenges us to rethink our rights to dangerous behaviors and especially junk foods. Says Bittman:

We need to be asking not “Do junk food companies have the right to market to children?” but “Do children have the right to a healthy diet?”

Writing in the Daily Beast, Michael Schulson makes a different point. He calls out the hypocrisy of liberal-minded folks who respond eagerly to the pseudoscience that Whole Foods peddles, while eschewing the products of “Big Food.” He concludes:

The moral is not that we should all boycott Whole Foods. It’s that whenever we talk about science and society, it helps to keep two rather humbling premises in mind: very few of us are anywhere near rational. And pretty much all of us are hypocrites.

Marketers, policymakers, and consumers alike should heed these words. Hazardous marketing yields more quickly to informed consumers than to policymakers.

Click here to read Bittman’s column in the New York Times and click here to read Schulson in the Daily Beast.

Camp Hazard, photograph © Pawel Marciniak / flickr

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