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Who Decides What Should Sell?

The companies which are profiting from such products are made up of good sincere people and they could sit back and consider the impact that they are having on society and families and individuals

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In a recent ad, a girl washed festive colours off her face and when done, looked at herself in the mirror. Black eyes stared back from her scarred face. A large number of people felt it sensitised viewers to a negative aspect of the Holi festival which was becoming commonplace. But a large number of people were offended, saying it demeaned a cultural practice by highlighting something which they felt was an aberration.

I would presume that the creative marketing team had pondered long and hard on whether the problem was serious and widespread enough to ring an alarm bell for society. But it seems the view they were presenting was not accepted widely enough.

However, what about advertisers who are selling products which are recognised to have negative impacts on people’s psyches or their bodies. The list is long and illustrious, face whiteners glorifying fair skin in a dark skin country, gutka and tobacco products which cause cancers, high sugar drinks which contribute to obesity, ineffective and even fake supplements et al. Obviously these products sell enough to support their high-profile campaigns with high production values and often, high-cost endorsers. They blanket the media ecosystem and it is no surprise then that the products are soon spread across the country. Why shouldn’t these companies continue to sell such products? Why should they take a value judged position to decide to continue or not?

A strong individual choice argument exists allowing buyers to exercise their right to buy or not buy products, even if they are perceived to be harmful. What is not clear however, is what these choices are based on? Often, there is a simple lack of knowledge or understanding about its effects, or consumption could be driven by economic considerations (eg. chewing tobacco products are a low-cost pleasure for many people). However, all this is strongly boosted by constant bombardment with overt and subliminal advertising. Subjected to repeated exposures from all directions, buyers are ultimately seduced by them. There is no limit to the expertise and skill of our marketers who cleverly create perceptions which may have nothing to do with reality, but which certainly build strong motivations for purchase eg., “main zubaan kesari bolta hun”. What does this really mean?

As in many other things, the usual default position in such discussions is that the government should ‘do something’, cleverly chucking the ball away from ourselves. Governments are perhaps the greatest practitioners of marketing and many around the world have tried to make ‘socially correct’ choices for their people such as China and Brazil, but their motivations have often been suspect and the long-term success of their actions are not proven (eg. China’s one child campaign).

It is very difficult for any external force to effectively make choices for people unless the problem is already accepted by a large enough section of society.

This places an enormous burden on the shoulders of the companies selling such products. Of course, they work hard to move their boxes, but they should be struggling more with deciding if it is justified to sell the product or not. As we know, lucre has a way of swaying decisions in its direction which is highlighted by the fact that cigarette sales continue to grow in India and indeed the world. According to Statista, the value sale of cigarettes in India in 2023 will be $12.7 billion, growing at 4.72 per cent. The fact that they continue to sell packs with graphic warnings of the potential dangers of consumption, which they apply themselves, is a telling comment.

Products come and go and there are many which were an essential part of life, but have now disappeared – film cameras, fax machines, typewriters and carbon sheets (unless you are outside an Indian courthouse), incandescent bulbs, audio tapes, the list goes on. But these products had traversed their life cycles and lost relevance. Harmful products, however, seem to have tremendous staying power and even though common evidence of their effects has progressed, they still thrive.

So, the question is, who is to decide what should or should not be marketed and sold? Returning to the cigarette example, according to a CDC survey report from the United States, between 2,000 – 2020 current smoking reported by people, dropped from 27.4 per cent to 18.2 per cent and the per capita consumption of cigarettes, reduced from 101.01 packs/capita to 42.29 packs / capita. (Interestingly, the highest decline of -56.4 per cent was among respondents with college education or more, which says something.) This gives us hope that such changes can happen, however a whole lot of factors need to fall into place including the acceptance of lower or no tax revenues by the government.

There is the inspiring example of one of the largest profit-making businesses in the 1700s and 1800s, the trading of humans as slaves, which created huge personal fortunes and massive government revenues. According to The Atlantic, in 1860 “the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.” But this trade no longer exists. Large shifts can happen, when social sentiment turns and economic justifications evaporate.

The decision follows sentiment and not vice versa.

There are, of course, many who work on the issue of harmful products. It is time for people to stop buying and to add their voices to conscientize people about their dangers and ill effects. This is happening in the case of single use plastics and chemical pesticides. We require multiple such movements beginning with children and schools, people working in social fields and then eventually the government, to create a negative public wave against such products. The companies which are profiting from such products are made up of good sincere people and they could sit back and consider the impact that they are having on society and families and individuals.

Perhaps it would help them sleep better at night.

With over 30 years’ international experience in marketing, managing brands, retail and ecommerce businesses, the writer is a consultant and commentator

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Ajai Kumar Dayal

The author has over 30 years’ experience in managing and consulting on big brands, retail, and ecommerce. He has been a commentator and columnist in many publications.

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