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Trevor Hancock: We are being marketed to death

My two latest columns discussed the marketing of alcohol and unhealthy foods, especially high-sugar foods, just a few of the many products that produce ill health, injury and premature death.

My two latest columns discussed the marketing of alcohol and unhealthy foods, especially high-sugar foods, just a few of the many products that produce ill health, injury and premature death.

Clearly, the industries that market these products are less concerned with the well-being of the population than their own profits. The question is, why do we allow this, and how can we stop it?

Tobacco marketing is the poster child for how to market a harmful product to the public and fight like hell to be able to continue to do so in the face of all the evidence. One reason that some of the products being marketed are called “the new tobacco” in the public-health literature is because they clearly look to tobacco marketing as a model, and employ many of the same techniques that industry used to try to fight off controls over its sales and marketing.

These techniques include denying and casting doubt on the evidence, hiding evidence of harm, attacking the scientists who produce the evidence, raising issues of free speech and their right to market a legal product, making political donations and lobbying hard at all levels, supporting art and sport organizations that make them allies, opposing regulation and taxation, initiating lengthy court cases, and funding (but not publicly) supposed citizen organizations that support the right to buy and use the product.

Let’s look at some of the products that have been called “the new tobacco,” and more generally at the business of marketing, which I believe is generally bad for our health. The most obvious “new tobaccos” are sugar and the related issues of unhealthy fast foods and childhood obesity (my topic last week); two others are the fossil fuel and auto industries.

Perhaps the closest cousin to tobacco marketing these days is the fossil-fuel industry. Some companies have been fostering climate-change denial and attacking both the science and the scientists, while cultivating powerful political allies, especially in the U.S.

In a report on this issue, the Centre for International Environmental Law states that based on its research into the documents in the Tobacco Industry Archives, there have long been close ties between the two industries and “the oil industry used the tobacco playbook in its fight against climate science.”

A related example of unhealthy marketing is the auto industry. A 2011 article in the Journal of Public Health asked whether cars are the new tobacco. The authors concluded that: “Private cars cause significant health harm,” including through air pollution and climate change due to fossil-fuel combustion, but “the car lobby resists measures that would restrict car use, using tactics similar to the tobacco industry.”

Another troubling aspect of auto marketing is the marketing of high-speed and dangerous driving. A 2010 article in the journal Canadian Public Policy examined auto ads aired or published in 2006/07.

The authors found that 27 per cent of TV ads (and 10 per cent of print ads) featured unsafe or aggressive driving; my impression is that TV ads have become even worse since then. This is socially irresponsible.

But let’s face it, the purpose of marketing is to persuade us to buy more of their products — why else would a business spend all that money? And therein lies perhaps the greatest danger. Because marketing feeds into and supports the dominant narrative of growth, it stimulates us to want and need more products, more “stuff.”

But endless growth within a finite system is impossible, as is becoming apparent as we move into the Anthropocene era. Three per cent economic growth coupled with one per cent population growth translates into a 22-fold increase in demand by the end of this century. We can’t afford to increase our material demands, and yet that is what most marketing is about.

That is why I believe that the marketing industry as a whole is a threat to the health of the population. So instead of celebrating the ingenuity of the advertising industry, and all the clever ways in which it tries to trick us into buying more stuff, we need to rethink the role and responsibility of the marketing industry in the 21st century.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.