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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Between Seduction and Conviction

Matters of taste, more than most things in life, appear to be matters of personal choice. Even in dictatorships, people choose the color of their socks or shirts or scarves or the taste of their food and drink within the limits of their poverty.
Yet, increasingly in mass media consumer economies, matters of taste become matters of merchandising and therefore matters to be shaped and controlled. We grow up tending to think that controls only come through edicts, orders and compulsion. These are inefficient and eventually self-defeating ways. They are frequently resisted successfully.

A far more effective way to control people is through the manipulation of their senses, as Madison Avenue has known for years. The tobacco industry perfected this by emphasizing taste (“like a cigarette should”) and, of course, not mentioning lung cancer. A walk through the most successful advertisements is witness to words, slogans and images which feature taste, touch, smell, style, beauty, color. These messages are beamed to millions of people daily without any critique, refutation or counterbalancing communication. These ads must be fine; nobody is saying they’re not.

So, soft drinks take nearly 40 billion consumer dollars a year because of their refreshing taste. Who tells these consumers daily how nutritionally empty, how much sugar or other additives they contain. Pure fruit juice processors avoid such consumer education, even when they are not owned by a soft drink company like Coca-Cola. Food is predominately promoted for its taste, texture, color, and ease of preparation, not for qualities such as nutrition, safety and sanitation — not to mention price comparisons.

Clothing is sold for style more than for durability, comfort and health. So strong is the style dictate ingrained in buyers that they will torture their feet and constrain their bodies in tight, infection prone pants to conform to the contemporary conventions. Consider the stiletto heel shoes for example. Rarely has there been a tyranny so willingly enforced by its victims upon themselves.

The most advanced manipulations of sense are cosmetics whose styles are changed and supinely accepted with increasing frequency. Here the sanction is the fear of being different from everybody else who are similarly made up or adorned.

But the transformation of functional products to stylistic appeals runs deep throughout our economy. Automobiles went through their greatest period of technological stagnation in the two decades after World War II when the companies devolved to extremes with their dominant stylistic pornography. Fins, ornaments and chrome strips ruled over safety, fuel efficiency and quality.

Consumers who think, make producers and sellers work harder to give them quality competition. Consumers, who react to clever stimulations of their senses which are designed to replace critical and comparative thinking and higher expectation levels with ignorance and impulse, lose dollar and health values. It makes a big difference in what you eat whether you let food marketeers turn your tongue against your brain or vice versa.

In essence, the battle between buyers and sellers in the marketplace is one between seduction and conviction. Next time you look at a package or an advertisement, ask whether you are being appealed to on matters of substance or matters of taste at the expense of substance. Consumers pay much more for less nutrition, processed food with additives, then for fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Why Coca-Cola even costs more than gasoline per gallon and its much, much easier to produce.

Years ago insurance salesmen used to say — “insurance is sold, not bought.” I suppose the description of a thinking consumer is a buyer who buys and is not sold.