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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Do You Want Fries With That?
distributed 7/12/02 & 6/1/07 - ©2002, 2007

"Would you like fries with that?" is heard far beyond the fast-food joints. It has become the punchline for jokes about dead-end work in the service economy, and a catch phrase for all sorts of aggressive marketing.

It is an expression that comes to mind as I read of the latest report about junk food.

A recent news story leads with this statement: "Super-size meals are fattening consumers and costing America $117 billion annually in higher health care costs, a coalition of consumer groups said." The health problems that are said to arise from fat and calorie filled "value meals" include growing obesity rates, heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

In response, a spokeswoman with the National Restaurant Association said, "Restaurants offer this variety of portion sizes based upon consumer demand." She echoes the common line of manufacturers and retailers: "We're only giving them what they want."

But if you order a burger and a drink, they don't assume you know what you want. They take the initiative to ask you, "Fries with that?"

If you order one of the "value meals," they ask you, "Do you want to super-size that?"

The pervasive pushing of fries and super-size shows how well the strategy works. The fast-food chains would not go to the effort of asking those questions if it did not increase sales and profits significantly.

The question about fries does not coerce people, and it does not plant an entirely new idea into their heads. But it does give their desires a nudge. It suggests just a bit more impulse buying. It calls for a snap decision that may well go against a person's more rational thinking on nutrition or budgeting.

The technical term is "add-on sales." A webpage urging museums to make better use of the technique says, "remember that the key to success with add-on sales is the personal suggestion. And while every suggestion certainly won't result in a sale, every add-on sale that you do make will be a sale that you wouldn't have had otherwise."

When business says that it is only giving consumers what they want, it is always important to ask how those "wants" have been shaped.

All too often, business interests -- fast-food and automakers seem to me to be the leading offenders -- run extensive advertising campaigns to boost the sales of products that hurt consumers (junk food) or the environment (SUVs). But when challenged about their products, they roll out the claim of "only giving people what they want."

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the power of advertising:

It works not on the individual but on the mass. Any individual of will and determination can contract out from its influence. This being so, no case for individual compulsion in the purchase of any product can be established. Yet there is little danger that enough people will ever assert their individuality to impair the management of mass behavior.

I'm frustrated by the dishonesty of it all. Tens of millions of dollars are spent to manipulate consumer desires, and then those who designed the ad campaigns deny culpability in the selection of products.

The assertions of "giving people what they want" without addressing the enormous power of advertising conceals important power dynamics, and misdirect the locus of change. It hides the willingness of corporations to exploit consumers and the environment in a quest for profit. And it implies to those of us who seek a healthy and sustainable world that all of our efforts for change should be directed at the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of individuals, instead of at corporate decision-makers.

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It is an old part of our faith story. The serpent, the tempter, said to Adam and Eve, "You want an apple with that?" The church has certainly dealt in depth with the themes of personal sin and guilt which start with that story.

But the message of faith also looks beyond the personal choices. It clearly names "the tempter" and the powers of evil. The Judeo-Christian tradition has always insisted on justice and accountability in the realm of social relations and power structures.

Faithful, caring and effective ministry requires that both sides be addressed -- personal choice and institutional power. Ignoring the power structures, disregarding the power of advertising, puts an impossible burden on those who take part in the global marketplace. It places all the responsibility, all the guilt for distorted choices, on people who are subjected to a constant barrage of suggestion, temptation and seduction.

In our efforts at pastoral care and physical health for our communities, and in our efforts at economic justice and environmental sustainability, we must not let the powerful hide from accountability. We must name and address the influence of advertising and modern marketing techniques.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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