Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Culture of Deception and Fantasy


I recently came across two ads which capture the essence of Americans' preference for fantasy over reality and deception over truth.


Here's one which markets a sugary chocolate-laced candy bar as "health snack" based on a bit of oatmeal used to bind the chocolate and the sugar:



This is the epitome of American marketing guile and Americans' desire for fantasy: that eating a candy bar loaded with unhealthy levels of fat and sugar will promote "health" because it contains a very modest quantity of fiber.

This way, harried American parents can give their kids, brainwashed by endless hours of marketing on TV, what they're clamoring for--a high-fat, high-sugar high-salt candy bar--and then slip into the warm comforts of a naive belief that this cleverly packaged, insidiously taste-engineered and heavily hyped product is actually "good" for their kids.

Folks, this is a candy bar, not a healthy natural food. It is a calorie-loaded disaster whose negatives far outweigh its extremely modest "benefits." If you want to give your kids some real fiber, then cook up plain old oatmeal. Throw in some raisins for sugar and iron and some ground flax seed for omega-3 and you've actually got a real source of fiber--and a lot of other nutrients which aren't even tracked on the deceptively minimal "nutrition facts" labels.

And the real food would cost about 30 cents, not $3.

Garbage "food" like this--immensely profitable, deceptively marketed and labeled--is why the U.S. is now a nation of overweight, unhealthy citizens. Today's news is all about children with high blood pressure, caused--are we surprised?--by being overweight.

Is there a cultural connection between the food industry's seductive deceptions and the consumers who willingly lap up fantasies of "healthy" candy bars, and the subprime mortgage mess? Absolutely.

In both cases, a highly profitable product--in one case, mortgages with huge upfront (garbage) fees and deceptively marketed benefits (super-low interest rates)--in the second, candy, pills, high-salt high-fat snacks, sugary cereals and low-calorie (but high-salt and low nutrition) prepared meals--is relentlessy marketed--on blogs and websites which accept ads regardless of the source or content, in the mainstream media (TV, radio, billboards) and of course in the endless pitches and offers which stuff our mailboxes.

But rather than view this glossy material skeptically, Americans bought it all. Rather than read the fine print or nutrition label (as poor a source of data as that is), they signed on for mortgages which soon jumped from 3% to 12%. Why? To get on board the fantasy train of unearned wealth flowing from the housing boom.



The desire for a fantasy world of easy unearned wealth and easy unearned well-being is the connection between the meltdown of our health and the meltdown of our economy.

Marketers of course understand this concept well. Sell the fantasy, market and label the product as deceptively as you can get away with, and the hordes will buy, buy, buy.

This cultural foundation of deception runs very deep. In the Vietnam Era, we had faked body counts, "light at the end of the tunnel," budgets which hid the true cost of the war. And today--well, it's deja vu all over again.

On the financial front, we now know what we suspected all along--that the foundation of the housing and debt bubbles was all lies and deception: puffed-up appraisals, ratings agencies covering up the true risk of the mortgages and derivatives being packaged and sold as "low risk," corporations pulling every accounting trick in the book to goose their quarterly earnings, off-balance sheet liabilities kept off the books, mark-to-model assets worth half of their stated value--the list of lies, prevarications and deceptions is truly endless.

What's the solution? Stop buying the lies and fantasies. Stop voting for politicos who buy into the lies themselves. Don't buy a house at an inflated price. Pay off your credit cards and then cut them up. Don't accept ads and marketing on your blogs. Cancel the cable or satellite TV feed. That's just for starters. You can make up your own list, I'm sure.

Am I disgusted with a culture based on deception and fantasy? Yes. I think we all are, and I know many of you have done the right thing--sold your over-valued house and rented, tossed out your TV (to protect your kids), cooked real meals instead of microwaving salty, low-nutrition packaged food, and paid off debt rather than acquire more.

Bottom line, none of us have to buy into the deception or fantasy. A little skepticism of marketing guile and claims, a little belief that wealth should be earned and conserved, a little control over the flood of cleverly marketed deceptions which pour into our mailboxes, TVs, radios, shopping carts, homes, and computers, attached to "free" email, and nearly every website--these are all things any of us can do. It's a start.


Thank you, vera K., ($50) for your continuing support (2nd donation) to this humble site. I am greatly honored by your support and readership. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

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