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What #AdvertisingBans get wrong about #ConsumerBehaviour

Guest contributor



Advertising bans are increasingly relevant in political debate, with some countries having already establishes rules that don't allow for "junk food" advertising. But these proposals are all based on the assumptions that consumers are buying goods that they never would have wanted otherwise, writes Bill Wirtz, policy analyst for the Consumer Choice Center.

The fundamental question is: Can you make people buy something that they don't want?

The short answer to that question is: yes. However, you'd be required to force consumers, either directly or indirectly to make that happen. The question is not that of "want", but rather a question of "who made me want it".

The American legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who was Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under the Obama administration published an essay entitled Fifty Shades of Manipulation, in which he tackles manipulation and consumer sovereignty. In the said essay, Sunstein invokes different forms of manipulation, and despite the effort to differentiate, reaches the following conclusion: "It is important to acknowledge that in the commercial realm, manipulation is widespread; it is part of the basic enterprise. For that reason, the ethical taboo on manipulation is substantially weakened, in part on the theory that competitive markets impose appropriate constraints against undue harm. But in some cases, those constraints are too weak, and it is appropriate to invoke social norms or even the law to discipline welfare-reducing acts of manipulation."

The basic flaw in the essay is a misunderstanding between "manipulation" and "marketing", two words which are not pointing to the same type of strategy. Sunstein seems to believe that all types of advertising mislead consumers about the product, when this is actually a more exceptional case. When Volkswagen manipulated their vehicles in order to show a lower emissions output, they were giving consumers false information about their product. When companies advertise health benefits of their products that cannot be proven, then they are intentionally misleading their customers. However, this is miles away from advertising a product as being cool, refreshing, comfortable, or trendy. Are we to define the mere fact that a product is being described by the producer as "good", as manipulation? Because by this same standard, I could feel equally manipulated by the fact that Mister Sunstein calls a book he edited himself, "relevant". Who is he to decide what I find relevant? Will I feel misled if I find the book not to be relevant at all, and consider myself a victim of manipulation?

Most of all, it's not like consumers are already seeing through common marketing techniques. The €9.99-trick has been around for quite a long time, and even while effective, consumers are aware of what retailers are trying to achieve here. In the same way, consumers know that it's probably not "the best insurance", "the smoothest soft drink", or "the most efficient service" in the literal sense, and that marketers sell their goods the same way online as they would on an old-fashioned market place. And we're not going after a salesman pitching his "best apples" on a marketplace, are we? In the example of the "best" apple, the salesman certainly caught your attention with his pitch, that is far from making the sale. Just thinking of all the heavily marketed products that we personally DON'T want should be proof of that.

In the same way, technological progress is uncircumventable through marketing. There is no scenario in which candlemakers market their way out of being replaced by electricity as a form of producing light. Do you buy things that you'll find limited need for? Surely. Erroneous market decisions are a recurring theme, and nobody pretends that consumers act perfectly. If we're willing to admit the imperfection of consumers, let's not pretend that centralized decisions on consumer behaviour are exempt from mistakes themselves.

This is particularly true when it comes to nutrition. The food pyramid that was preached for decades was put completely upside down through new scientific findings.

Denise Minger writes in her book Death By Food Pyramid about Louise Light’s commissioned review of the 1956 food pyramid in the United States, which was ultimately rejected: “The guide Light and her team worked so hard to assemble came back a mangled, lopsided perversion of its former self. The recommended grain servings had nearly quadrupled, exploding to form America’s dietary centerpiece: six to eleven servings of grains per day replaced Light’s recommended two to three… and rather than aggressively lowering sugar consumption as Light’s team strived to do, the new guidelines told Americans to choose a diet “moderate in sugar,” with no explanation of what that hazy phrase actually meant.”

Centralized authorities make mistakes when it comes to nutritional recommendations. The claim that advertising is brainwashing us and that bureaucrats know the way out is essentially the wrong approach.

Improvements can always be made, but they have to be made through education, not blatant bans on access to information.

Let me formulate that in a way that fits the closeness of the European elections next months: if consumers are so ill-informed that they cannot even refrain from buying food as soon as they see advertising for it, then why are they fit to elect parliamentarians who legislate these advertisements away?


Belgian artist's 'portable oasis' creates COVID-free bubble for one





When governments around Europe told people to create a "bubble" to limit their social contacts during the COVID-19 pandemic, this was probably not what they had in mind, write Bart Biesemans and Clement Rossignol.

Alain Verschueren, a Belgian artist and social worker, has been strolling through the capital Brussels wearing a "portable oasis" - a plexiglass mini-greenhouse which rests on his shoulders, cocooning him in a bubble of air purified by the aromatic plants inside.

Verschueren, 61, developed the idea 15 years ago, inspired by the lush oases in Tunisia where he had previously worked. In a city where face coverings are mandatory to curb the spread of COVID-19, his invention has gained a new lease of life.

"It was about creating a bubble in which I could lock myself in, to cut myself off a world that I found too dull, too noisy or smelly," Verschueren said, adding that he has asthma and finds breathing within his contraption more comfortable than wearing a facemask.

Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium April 16, 2021. Picture taken April 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium April 16, 2021. Picture taken April 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium 16 April. REUTERS/Yves Herman

"As time went by, I noticed that people were coming up to me and talking to me. This isolation became much more a way of connecting," he said.

Onlookers in Brussels appeared amused and confused by the man wandering between the shops - mostly closed due to COVID-19 restrictions - encased in a pod of thyme, rosemary and lavender plants.

"Is it a greenhouse? Is it for the bees? Is it for the plants? We don't know, but it's a good idea," Charlie Elkiess, a retired jeweller, told Reuters.

Verschueren said he hoped to encourage people to take better care of the environment, to reduce the need to protect ourselves from air and noise pollution.

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Indo-Pacific: Council adopts conclusions on EU strategy for co-operation

EU Reporter Correspondent



The Council approved conclusions on an EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, setting out the EU’s intention to reinforce its strategic focus, presence and actions in this region of prime strategic importance for EU interests. The aim is to contribute to regional stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development, at a time of rising challenges and tensions in the region.

The renewed EU commitment to the Indo-Pacific, a region spanning from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific island states, will have a long-term focus and will be based on upholding democracy, human rights, the rule of law and respect for international law.

Current dynamics in the Indo-Pacific have given rise to intense geopolitical competition adding to increasing tensions on trade and supply chains as well as in technological, political and security areas. Human rights are also being challenged. These developments increasingly threaten the stability and security of the region and beyond, directly impacting on the EU’s interests.

Consequently, the EU’s approach and engagement will look to foster a rules-based international order, a level playing field, as well as an open and fair environment for trade and investment, reciprocity, the strengthening of resilience, tackling climate change and supporting connectivity with the EU. Free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law remain crucial. The EU will look to work together with its partners in the Indo-Pacific on these issues of common interest.  

The EU will continue to develop partnerships in the areas of security and defence, including to address maritime security, malicious cyber activities, disinformation, emerging technologies, terrorism, and organized crime.

The EU and its regional partners will also work together in order to mitigate the economic and human effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and work towards ensuring an inclusive and sustainable socio-economic recovery.

The Council tasked the High Representative and the Commission with putting forward a Joint Communication on co-operation in the Indo-Pacific by September 2021.

The conclusions were adopted by the Council by written procedure.

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Conference on the Future of Europe: Make your voice heard

EU Reporter Correspondent



Share your views on the EU, organize events across Europe and discuss with others through the new digital platform on the Conference on the Future of Europe, EU affairs.

Launched on 19 April, the platform is the multilingual hub of the Conference on the Future of Europe that will allow people to get involved and suggest what changes need to take place in the EU. Europeans will also be able to see what others propose, comment on them and endorse ideas.

The EU institutions have committed to listening to what people say and to following up on the recommendations made. The Conference is expected to reach conclusions by the spring of 2022.

How do you take part?

Choose a topic that interests you. It could be anything from climate change to digital issues or EU democracy. If you don’t see a category with your topic, share your opinion in the Other Ideas category.

Once you are in a specific category, you can read the introduction and explore some useful links. On the Ideas tab, you can share your views and find the ideas of others. Join the discussion by leaving a comment, or vote for ideas you like so that more people can find them.

You can submit your comment in any of the EU's official 24 languages. All comments can be translated automatically in any of the other languages.

Under the Events tab, you can explore events organised online or near you, register for an event or prepare your own.

The platform fully respects users’ privacy and EU data protection rules.

What happens when you submit an opinion?

The submitted opinions and the debate they initiate will be the basis for discussions in citizens’ panels that will be organised across the EU at regional, national and European level. These panels will include people from different backgrounds so that they can be representative of the whole population of the EU.

The conclusions of the different panels will be then presented at a plenary session of the Conference, which will bring together citizens, representatives of EU institutions and national parliaments.

Join the discussion on social media about the Conference with the hashtag #TheFutureIsYours.

Conference on the Future of Europe 

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