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Walking Past the Billboard – The Power of Consumers

| Lewis Akenji

In a democratic market economy the consumer has power over the choice of what he buys or doesn’t. Does he want or need a cool drink on a hot summer day? Can he choose it not to be a coke?

“Consumers, by definition, include all of us.
They are the largest economic group in the economy, affecting and affected by
almost every public and private decision. Two-thirds of all spending in the
economy is by consumers. But they are the only important group in the economy
who are not effectively organised, whose views are often not heard.”
J.F.
Kennedy, 1962

In a democratic market
economy
the consumer has power over the choice of what he buys or
doesn’t. Does he want or need a cool drink on a hot summer day? Can he choose it
not to be a coke?

Here’s how it is walking downtown Budapest. For every
five steps I take, there’s a new advert beckoning me to try out a product: a
billboard of that new TV set which looks slicker than the one I bought last
year, happy faces of a family sitting around watching it; and, by the way,
‘hurry up’ because it’s on ‘limited’ offer at a discount in Wal-Mart. Next five
steps. Look at the shop window! That cool blouse which that famous model wore in
that popular movie. Five steps. That’s the latest model of the phone everybody’s
talking about, it’s a more phone than this one in my pocket, and it totally
suits my personality. In between five-steps, there’s every other form of
marketing bumping in: the guy with the “Have a break, Have a KitKat” T-shirt,
the vehicle with “Nokia. Connecting people.” At home is not different. Empty
your letterbox on the way in and it’s full of supermarket leaflets, flyers,
catalogues. Settle to watch TV, it runs five commercials every 15 minutes.
Switch it off for the radio and it’s no better, only louder. Want to do some
work on the internet? First clear your way through the pop-ups and “Viagra” junk
mail.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, “global
spending on advertising reached $446 billion in 2002, an almost nine-fold
increase over 1950.” In an economy where breathless, manipulative advertising
pre-selects choices for people, consumers – you and I – are rendered
short-sighted, to see no further than resigning to what corporations push down
our throats. The roles therefore become reversed: the producer has become
empowered to decide whether you consume its products or not, and we’ve been
turned to a mass of cabbages fertilized and fattened with brands we don’t need
but cannot deny. Think of a caged monkey duly fed everyday without its opinion
on preference.

There are at least 15 major shopping malls in
Budapest alone. Shops are not museums waiting for the public to come, watch and
leave, they’re out to sell, make profits, and will use all antics to that
end.  The ‘SALE’ signs; ‘2 FOR THE PRICE OF ONE’; the colourful fliers
stuffed in your mailbox; the credit card you don’t know has a 13% interest rate;
posters on the metro, in restaurant toilets: they’re everywhere, even in the
most private places, one would have to disappear first if he wants to breathe
away from the claws of the market. No wonder then that, tired of resisting,
languid consumers with beaten spirits roam from one shop to another without
thinking and grabbing all ‘the latest coolest stuff’ which the market heavily
promotes.
 
 And it’s hard to find motivation to change, to stop
the inertia of consumerism when advertisement sets off competition among people,
daring one friend or neighbour to catch up with another and assert their brand
consumer status. Competing to catch up with each other is almost a staple in the
dynamics of people’s interrelations, advertisers often use this as a weapon to
drive the market. Mass production works perfectly on that precept. The Mango
blouses that have created a human brand of Mango girls roaming streets in Mango
uniforms; the flat screen TV that is a living-room signature of status; the huge
family car that makes one family look richer on the road and bullies all other
small cars. None of these is personalised – bad news for Mr Cool. They are
produced en mass and dumped on the market for target ego groups to start
fighting each other over, thanks to a little spin in advertisement called market
placement. Soon enough, the product gathers a segment of users, an army of
consumers, who start defending it as their class brand. The producer has
won.

The dynamics of our market system would let us think
our choice of products is limited to the brands that lavish us with big
advertisement budget – even without big product quality. While our decisions
might not be conscious of their implications, in reality our actions, what we
end up buying, is what keeps that very cycle of choice-less
consumerism
alive. By extension, consumers have the ultimate power
on which products or companies should operate in their community and which ones
shouldn’t, in accordance with their own needs and defined by them rather than
imposed by producers’ marketing antics. It takes a simple decision to stop
consuming an unfriendly product and there’s no more market for it.

There are some six billion people in the world today.
What does this mean to market players who sacrifice a sustainable future for
short term profits? That’s six billion potential consumers for the market. Coca
cola ‘Always’ wants six billion people, and even polar bears, too, to drink one
coke a day, ‘Everyday’ – with global warming, there’d be year-round summers for
thirsty consumers to quench their thirst. Shell wants six billion people to tank
their cars everyday, burning fumes of carbon dioxide on congested highways into
our grey city skies. The annual advertising budget of McDonald’s is
3,000,000,000 US dollars. With ‘a little McDonald’s in all of us’, our TV sets
and giant billboard posters break through every cultural barrier to wink at six
billion of us to go for a Big Mac everyday.

Every consumer has the power to at least contribute
to a change. Your money is your vote. A choiced
consumer
is one who is properly informed of his options and
chooses responsibly. Reckless advertisements are therefore not information but
rather deterrents, misguiding consumers from responsibility, for the selfish aim
of making profits.

While you’re empowering yourself with the 8 Basic
Rights of Consumers

, here’re some suggestions to justify why you should
walk past the next billboard that bumps into you, or switch off that TV spot
that is yelling at you.

– Eat healthy. Fresh food has few or no
preservatives, is not filled with artificial chemicals, not over-processed, and
definitely not found in cans on TESCO shelves. Grow or make some food at home,
bake bread, cook your own beans. Apples don’t grow in winter! Out-of-season
foods travel over continents, are grown with fertilisers and sprayed with
chemicals – see how they shine like plastic apples on supermarket shelves. Be a
part of your community, promote small producers, buy from the neighbour in the
corner shop.
– Stay clean. The chocolate you bought – how much ‘nice’
packaging did it have? How many plastic bags from the supermarket? Jam bottles,
and plastic food packs? Is the packaging biodegradable? Can it be recycled? Long
after you enjoy these products, the packaging piles up in landfills just outside
the city, most of it lasting for hundreds of years. Less packaging, less
garbage, good for the environment.
– Ask companies to be responsible.
Corporate Social Responsibility means to take the real needs of people into
consideration rather than creating new ones; and to respect and support
societies in which they invest rather than treating people as profit-generating
automated consumers. Here’s one to think about: What’s the need for a giant
multinational company, say coca cola, pushing trucks of red cans into every
cultural crevice of the world if it would not help the locals in any way other
than heavy brand-promotion sponsorship? Its ‘help’ to those ‘poor’ therefore is
in sucking out money from their communities to the base country of its
shareholders; the more of that product is consumed the more the earnings of the
local population are drained, and the thinner the resources left for them to
build their own community.
– Develop your own personal ethics and don’t
let the market force you to kill your will. Know what you need to buy before
heading out. Once you step in the shop it’s like a war zone, all those glossy
products fighting over your wallet. If you don’t like child labour, addition of
chemicals in food, environmental pollution, animal testing, deforestation of the
rainforest, etc, do not buy products from companies that promote such
issues.
– Christmas vacation and Valentines Day are not shopping
seasons. Love is not manufactured in the factories, it is gardened in the
heart.
– Smile, you still have the power to make a
change.

This article first appeared in the magazine
Tudatos Vasarlo issue 1.

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