October 25th, 2012

Cigarettes were the sale of the twentieth century. In spite of a multitude of disadvantages, not least of which was their often terminal impact on health, through clever sales techniques they became an arbiter of social status and sexual vigour unlike any other in the Western world. Some might argue that it was their addictive nature that made them so powerful, but that is to ignore the sensational success of cigarette marketers who pitched them perfectly into the cultural environment of twentieth century western life. It is that success in other products, such as alcohol and sugar, that has drawn out the debate over government control of fast moving consumer goods because of the cost these impose on society.

The latest cause celebre of FMCG is energy drinks, right in the spotlight of social outrage through the legal challenge initiated by a number of deaths purportedly from drinking “Monster” brand product in the United States. This has immediately had an impact in New Zealand, with investigations ordered by authorities into the relative safety of caffeine laced packaged drinks here.

Note that there is no investigation into coffee or tea, well established sources of caffeine. The crime is not so much the drug used in these products, or even the quantities consumed, it is the behaviour marketing of the products that individual brands encourage. Making “Monster” cool amongst kids, and the socially enhancing behaviour of over-indulgence, is what irritates conservative elements in society. Especially when public health is perceived to be at risk.

This is why the tobacco companies find their brands under assault in the latest round of the nicotine war. Not because tobacco is immoral, or illegal, nor even that it is unhealthy, but because the problem with tobacco is in the very brands themselves. The sales pitch that cigarettes make you attractive to the opposite sex, improve your sporting prowess and professional achievement was what made them so dangerous.

Indeed, if authorities had begun with an assault on cigarette marketing rather than their health consequences, the war would have been much shorter. If consumers are prepared to believe that smokers are cool, fit and successful spin, what chance of quickly turning them off the product with a rational appeal to long term health issues?

And it is successful advertising that creates mainstream problems. Glue sniffing continues to claim more than its reasonable quota of lives, but without the power of brand marketing to sniffers, there is no interclass cost. The chance of middle New Zealand’s young Seans and Chloes getting stung by glue abuse is so limited as to be negligible, but a sharp marketing manager at 3M could change all that overnight.

Life style advertising is the devil that turns everything from Red Bull to Johnny Walker into a potential social cost. Life style advertising that sells not the product, but the social advantages of being seen to drink it, smoke it, sniff it, eat it. The coming witch hunt over caffeine stacked energy drinks will not directly address this critical part of any problem that substance abuse brings.

Unless we all, producers, retailers and social authorities, leave the science of physical health aside and address the seminal issue of public psychology, there will be burnings and pillories, but no sense to this problem.

The opinions of the writer are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.

One Response

  • Trevor Walsh says:

    An interesting article about a very complex issue. By its very nature advertising pushes emotional buttons and its hard to see how this can be controlled. All food products should be safe if taken responsibly and in moderation.
    Having said that a 14 year old consuming 2 X 70ml energy drinks in a 24 hour period and then dying does point to some serious issues – perhaps Anais had an undiagnosed health problem that was triggered by the caffein.

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