Thursday, October 31, 2013

Does Marketing Mean No Free Market?

Since I'm apparently a budding right-wing pundit, you might expect my reaction to this press release from Lady Obama to be something along the lines of "get your nanny statism out of my grocery shopping." It's not. More on that later, but first here are some excerpts:
As part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, Mrs. Obama today joined Sesame Street’s Elmo and Rosita to announce that Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association joined the Partnership for a Healthier America in a two-year agreement to help promote fresh fruit and vegetable consumption to kids... 
The announcement comes on the heels of the first ever White House convening on food marketing to children, during which Mrs. Obama called on stakeholders to leverage the power of marketing to promote healthy products and decrease the marketing of unhealthy products to kids. 
It goes on to mention a study where kids were given the choice of an apple or cookie to eat. Most, of course, chose the cookie. But when the researchers put an Elmo sticker on the apple, twice as many kids took the apple as before.

Now, I object to the federal government having anything to do with food choices beyond ensuring that consumers get honest information about what they're buying. Michelle Obama, in this sphere, is mostly known for a signature school lunch law that is full of absurd rules and massive expenses, which compound the already horrible state of federal school lunch mandates and are another big gift to well-connected lobbyists, not kids. But set that aside for a second, because I like this action. Here, Obama is using her bully pulpit, and not the heavy hand of misguided laws, in a sphere which is better served by doing exactly that.

A lot of what people consume depends heavily on marketing. Kids are a prime target for marketers, because they don't have the rational capabilities of most adults. If a child wants a fudge sandwich, he demands it. An adult who wants a fudge sandwich instead can say to himself, "Should I have a fudge sandwich? Or have I already had too many sweets/fats/departures from healthy eating recently?" Children are not so good on the link between actions and consequences. And while many adults act like children in this regard, it is not the government's job to shield adults from the consequences of their actions. The only reason it has become incumbent upon the government to do this is that now taxpayers pay a vast amount for the healthcare of other people, meaning people who make bad choices don't get penalized for it as they would otherwise, meaning more people make bad choices, meaning taxpayers have to pay an ever-increasing amount of our hard-earned money for other people's bad choices. Snowball.

But the point I am trying to get to concerns marketing, and how it changes people's perceptions. My husband and I are listening to economics lectures from our alma mater, in which the lecturer (once one of my professors) is an adamant supporter of the free market. I'm a free marketer myself, overall. But the question my husband asks is "How free is the market given advertising?" If companies can change your perception about what is good, or prey on your baser instincts (think putting a slavering blonde astride a gut-expanding six-pack of beer), is the market really free? In that case, demand is susceptible to deception.

This is why I currently think public health marketing campaigns, which do not necessarily have to be sponsored by the government, are a great idea. For example, the biggest academic difference between poor and middle-class kids derives from one thing: Poor families generally do not talk to their kids or read to them like middle-class parents do. By age three, this generates a vocabulary gap that most poor kids never overcome, leading to poor academic performance and life prospects, all because someone didn't read to them. Now, books are free at the library. If some brilliant philanthropy would just spend money on a public health campaign telling people to turn off the screens and read to their kids, and get celebrities and rappers and singers to put their faces on ads like that, children would literally be lifted out of poverty, and to very little taxpayer expense.

It's the same thing with fathering. The social science is rock-solid that children do best when their biological father is married to their mother. President Obama, when he does touch on this (and it's not often), is very touching and convincing. It's too bad he and others don't touch on that more often.

So while Michelle Obama has some terrible ideas, I think this is a good one. It doesn't cost anything to have Elmo and Co. appear on fruits and vegetables at no charge to the produce companies that want to use them. It doesn't require coercive, one-size-fits-all mandates and nanny statism. And it's a small step towards encouraging healthy behavior, using marketing for good rather than for evil.

Image by Long Beach Public Library.

No comments:

Post a Comment

This site is no longer accepting comments. Please check us out at and share your reply there. Thank you!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.