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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Really Dumb Choice

by tristero

The comments to my previous post were genuinely fascinating. They reflect, in a microcosm, the much larger problems with our national discourse, which I've bemoaned since my earliest days as a blogger. As always, I'm not trashing our commenters, at least I hope not, I like you people! Rather, I think we all accept the prevailing terms of the current discourse as normal rather than what it is: a bizarre caricature of what real discussions look like. (Me, too, of course, that's why I blog about it so much, and why I love reading the comments, even the ones I disagree with.)

The subject of my post was, I thought, obvious: the latest eruptions of unbelievably deceptive marketing. I gave two examples. In the first, a consortium of enormously wealthy corporations bought off a bunch of corrupt nutritionists and got them to relabel junk food as a "Smart Choice." In the second, a company that manufactures a very-low-nicotine "electronic cigarette" touted the availability of their product as the very embodiment of an all-American value, "Freedom of Choice." (I'll get to the use of the word "choice," which is no accident, later. )

Ok, let's not argue whether the Smart Choice nutritionists are really corrupt or simply clueless pawns of Big Food. What's simply beyond dispute, except to those paid to say otherwise, is that Froot Loops is junk food, as is Diet Pepsi. As for electronic cigarettes, their availability for sale is merely a financial issue to the company, not a moral one; trust me: If no one buys them, the company will no longer manufacture them, freedom of choice be damned.

Again, I thought it was patently obvious: these are some of the most cynical marketing practices around. Who could possibly disagree? But to many of the commenters, it wasn't obvious at all.

Some folks defended Diet Pepsi, as if Diet Pepsi were the subject and I was trying to ban it. It wasn't and of course I'm not. Apparently this too isn't obvious, so I'll spell it out:

Just because Diet Pepsi is junk food doesn't mean you shouldn't drink the stuff, if you like it. Who says eating should be healthy? Not me. In fact, a lot of my posts on food have stressed eating for pleasure, not health. (True, I can't stand Diet Pepsi, I think it's swill, but I'm sure there are plenty of junk foods, like soft pretzels with yellow mustard from street carts, that you loathe and I love.)

My only objection is that junk food, with the collusion of nutritionists who should know better, is being marketed as a Smart Choice, ie, as health food. That is very, very wrong.

Amazingly, many people who should know better fell for this marketing scam, including many commenters. So let's again be clear: there is sheer rhetorical malpractice afoot in branding Diet Pepsi a Smart Choice. There is no reality there. We're talking junk food here. But, you might ask, isn't Diet Pepsi less awful than Pepsi Pepsi (ie, HFCS soda)? No, it's not. Junk food that appears less awful than other junk food is still... you got it. It's still just junk food, just like the legendary Ponzi wasn't a "better" human being than Madoff because he didn't bilk as many people. They're both rotten crooks. (Cue commenters with an encyclopedic knowledge of Ponzi to explain why this, really, really is unfair to the poor guy.)

It's not elitism or egomania to assert that if you eat enough junk food, your health will suffer. That is simply a fact. It may suffer differently whether you have a regular diet of Pepsi Pepsi or Diet Pepsi, but suffer it will if you persist in drinking the stuff the way we used to drink water (not everyone, duh, will get horribly sick, mentioned for the benefit of those who think they have "good genes"). Less awful junk food doesn't mean it's "better" junk food; it's still junk food and you will hurt yourself if you eat too much of it.

Less awful junk is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a "Smart Choice." It's still food with next to no decently balanced nutritional content and often plenty of stuff that's downright bad for you. It seems to me that a far better choice is to eat the junk food you want to eat. At least, you're not kidding yourself, which, when it comes to food, can lead to binging on the junk you really wanted in the first place. Regardless, whether you eat the junk you want, or the junk you don't want that you think is "less junk," it's a plain fact, not a scolding, that you just shouldn't eat it too often. It's not good for you to eat a lot of it.

Now regarding the e-cigarettes, one commenter wrote:
I'm so disappointed in this blog today.

tristero, you completely ignored my comment. You completely ignored the many many people who commented on that very page you linked to for criticism - people who credit their e-cigs for getting them off smoking *entirely*.

tristero, I am very disappointed in you. You have let me down as a supposedly-but-not-really responsible, progressive blogger. You are not progressive - you seem to be in favor of restricting options, options that work for many people. You are also not responsible - taking one paragraph out of an article when anyone who would read the whole of that article might come away with an entirely different position. Fucktards on the RIGHT do that, not us.
First of all, I'm sorry he felt ignored. As for quoting that poor spokesperson out of context, I don't think I did, but if she thinks so, she's more than welcome to get in touch. Now, to the issues he brings up.

Regarding the folks who posted comments saying they quit smoking by using this product, that is classic anecdotal evidence and obviously represents a small fragment of the entire population of users - to call them self-selected is just the start of the problems with taking their comments as something significant. Among my questions are: How many didn't post who are still addicted? Furthermore, how many were fooled into perpetuating a deadly nicotine addiction by the misleading nonsense of that company's morality-based marketing?

The issue is not smoking a healthier cigarette, or one which quoteunquote can't say it because they don't have good evidence but it will help you quit - wink, wink. Why? Ingesting nicotine is not healthy. It's just a simple fact: Nicotine is very bad for you. Here's a google link to nicotine's known health risks; it shouldn't surprise anyone if they found more.

But even if 99.99% of e-cig users quit all nicotine use within a year - fat chance - I don't find the cure rate relevant to the point I was making. Again, the only issue that concerned me in that post was marketing something falsely, in this case, casting the availability of a nicotine delivery system, sold for profit, as a moral right. As Clint Eastwood sez, "right's" got nothing to do with it.

This brings us to the commenter's other point, regarding whether I am "in favor of restricting options." I don't know how to respond to something like that because, in this context, the entire issue of "freedom of choice" has been reduced to a nonsensical marketing gimmick designed to distract from the fact that we are talking about people trying to make money from nicotine addiction and who will say anything, do anything, to make that money. The real issues regarding freedom of choice are far too serious to be exploited for mere financial gain by a cigarette maker, "e" or otherwise. They are simply distracting all of us from the real issue: whether any company has the right to prey on consumers by manufacturing for profit and marketing deceptively a product we all know contains substances that are both highly addictive and very bad for you.

And that leads us to the word "choice." Many folks, including my friend above, took the attitude that it was illiberal of me to trash Diet Pepsi and Fruit Loops and/or e-cigarettes. In short, they think I am against choice, or at least leaning that way.

Hmm... "Smart Choice," "freedom of choice," where have I heard that "choice" rhetoric before? Oh yeah! "Pro-choice!"

I can't help but think of all the times the right has turned liberal memes and slogans on their head. Why shouldn't their allies in Big Food and tobacco do the same? I am not suggesting that the commenter above is a rightwinger, I'm sure he's not, rather it's that rightwing framing and rhetoric is ubiquitous; at different times we all fall for it, including me of course. But one clue that something was amiss here, to me at least, is that good people, who really know better, were actually defending bad, deceptive, and evasive marketing. Furthermore, they were doing so not only by arguing that the products were not only healthy products instead of junk, or addicting, but that they were morally good as well, or at least that somehow there were Higher Principles involved in objecting to this deception, like Freedom of Choice In A Democracy.*

I don't buy any of it. You wanna make junk food, you don't have the right to deceive people into thinking it's healthy. You wanna make cigarettes, you most certainly don't have the right to distract from all the health problems any nicotine delivery system has by pretending, even for a moment, that some sort of freedom of choice issue is involved in your avid pursuit of profit.

Suddenly, when I blog about food these days, there sure are a lot of concern trolls, cautioning me not to be any more smugly self-righteous than I already am. Funny, these concern trolls weren't there when I started, before all the publicity about good food and Michelle's organic garden... But let's address the issues raised head on.

First of all, let me cop directly to the core of real criticism behind what smells like a tiny insignificant crumb of the rightwing-inspired pushback that includes the CEO of Coca-Cola comparing efforts to tax soda with, I kid you not, the Soviet Union.** For many reasons, writing about food is exceedingly difficult, far more so than I imagined when I started. I have a lot to learn. One of the few writers around who can address food matters unpretentiously and brilliantly is the oft-mentioned-by-me Mark Bittman - in fact, Food Matters is the title of one of his books. I certainly hope the more I do think about the issues involved, that I'll do a better job. Part of that job is finding a language and style that reflects my own thoughts and feelings about food, which are certainly opinionated but the exact opposite of doctrinaire and restrictive. I'm all about eating purely for enjoyment. (The crucial question is how can we identify really delicious food when our culture is trying desperately, and in so many ways, to make us confuse profitable food with good-tasting food.)

So, yes, I can be more skillful and hopefully will be, going forward, when I write about food. That fully acknowledged, it won't change my opinions on these issues:

The marketing of junk food as health food is outrageous. The marketing of cigarettes as a moral issue is utterly disgraceful.

To close, let me point out that, as Michael Pollan astutely observed, ultimately, these greedy bastards are manufacturing an additional, and enormously lucrative, product: patients for our dysfunctional, and highly profitable, health system. And that should be a national scandal.

*Just to head off a lot of angry commenting that might distract from the real issues, I don't believe that most commenters that objected to my post because they liked Diet Pepsi or felt the e-cigs were useful, or that I'm an insufferable elitist, were right wingers. However, I do believe strongly that when we start to couch issues of business, profit, and marketing as Gigantic Moral Imperatives, we have often become suckered into accepting a totally bogus rightwing frame. This certainly seems like one of those times to me. You may disagree. It's a free country. That's your, ahem, choice. But I'm certainly sorry if you feel insulted as that was not intended, but perhaps, in some cases, unavoidable.

**I don't have an opinion right now on the soda tax. Like everything else food, it's a complicated subject. But I do know for a certainty, that if soda is taxed it will be nothing like the Soviet Union. I saw the Soviet Union and the comparison of a soda tax - a soda tax! - to that totalitarian nightmare is obscene trivialization of the efforts of all those who resisted and protested and suffered under Soviet totalitarianism.