Why 'Let the Consumer Beware' Does Not Work in Practice

January 29, 2011

Business organizations, when challenged, defend their questionable practices by saying: “Let the consumer beware.”For example, that is how the tobacco companies defend marketing their cigarettes, which, as we all know, cause cancer to those smoking them as well as those who inhale them second-hand. The tobacco companies claim to believe that the customer should be able to choose whether to smoke or not.Free country. Right?And how about TV programs that depict violence, casual sex, or vulgar behavior? Consumers are free to change the channel, right?What about food that can cause obesity, hardening of the arteries, maybe even cancer? Again: Let the consumer decide. People have a choice. Free country. Free choice.But are we really free to choose?The free-choice argument assumes that we, the consumers, are in control of our actions, our choices. It assumes that we can make the choice.To be able to choose freely, we must be well informed about what repercussions our choices will have.A lot has been done toward informing consumers about the ingredients in their packaged food. There is even a trend in restaurants to tell patrons what goes into the food they are ordering.Nice.But this also makes the assumption that the data given to consumers is “information.”What is the definition of “information”? “Information” is data that is organized in such a way that it can aid decision-making.Unfortunately, in reality, most food packaging gives you data, not information. For instance, manufacturers can, and do, hide the fact that their product contains lots of sugar by calling it something else. It takes a food engineer or nutrition expert to understand what it says on the food package.But let us give the food companies the benefit of the doubt and assume that their packaging offers us usable information, from which we can learn the dangers of consuming the product.What about TV programs? Is it enough just to warn the viewer about potentially offensive content? Would you call such a warning “data,” or is it “information”? To be “information,” it needs to remind us of the repercussions of watching the program; in other words, what will it do to us? If it does not remind us of the repercussions, it is not effective as a warning. In fact, because what is forbidden attracts, the warning could have the opposite effect, tempting us even more strongly to watch the program.But, again, even though I doubt it, let us assume we understand the repercussions of the choices we make. Is that all we need in order to be in control of our actions?I suggest that knowing is not enough. We must also have the will power to act on what we know.Do we always have that will power?I suggest that we do not, because of something called “addiction.”Many people have an addiction to cigarettes. To alcohol. To violence on TV. (Yes, that’s right: addiction to violence.) To sex. To certain foods.The common denominator to all these addictions is pleasure—and the more pleasure they give, and the faster they give that pleasure, the more addictive they are going to be.The food industry, alcohol, and TV programming are all “pleasure pushers.” They work hard to please us as much and as fast as they can. This is called “good business,” because it is extremely profitable. But it also causes us to become addicted.Mottos such as “Let the customer beware,” and “The customer has a choice,” are mere fig leaves to disguise strategies that foster addiction. As a result, businesses are able to make profits even if their products cause disease, mental health problems, and sometimes social disintegration.What to do?In making social policy, we have a choice: Should we prohibit dysfunctional, addiction-causing products and services (and if we do, then we should prohibit them across the board, not just selectively depending on how powerful a lobby it has); or should we allow market forces to provide those addictive products and services, and let the customer beware?Both choices have their benefits, but also their costs.The “freedom to choose,” it should be understood, has costs: the current obesity epidemic in the United States, crimes that mimic those on TV programs, deaths caused by drunken drivers.On the other hand, when Prohibition (of alcohol) was attempted, it did not work. People found ways to produce and consume it despite the law.Nevertheless, I would still choose prohibition (and, in the case of television, censorship), because in my judgment the price we are paying for our “freedom” is much higher than the price of giving up a phony “freedom” that is rendered useless by addiction anyway.Sincerely,Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes

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Dr. Ichak Adizes