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What #AdvertisingBans get wrong about #ConsumerBehaviour

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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?

Belgium

Israel’s ambassador to Belgium lashes out at the Belgian government reaction, calls it ‘hypocrisy and cowardice’

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Israel’s ambassador to Belgium Emmanuel Nahshon (pictured) lashed out at the Belgian government reaction to the events in Israel and Gaza. “Friendly countries,  the US, Germany, the UK, all support Israel in an unconditional and clear way. We have the right to defend ourselves against these attacks. When it comes to the Belgian reaction, unfortunately what comes to mind is the word hypocrisy and the word cowardice,’ he said, writes Yossi Lempkowicz.

Speaking in an interview with Belgian tv channel LN24, the ambassador was reacting to comments made by Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmès on the conflict. She spoke of a ‘’very difficult situation, an escalation where the civilian population is affected’’.

For her, “the first thing we don’t do is point the finger at those responsible for the current situation. Hamas? The Israeli government? ”

She added, ‘’It’s a classic question, we always try to say who is responsible for what. When you want to be an ‘honest broker’ in the resolution of a conflict”, you have to avoid pointing the finger of blame.’’

“There are things happening (on the ground) that are difficult to accept on both sides. We are convinced that launching hundreds and hundreds of rockets (at Israel) is not likely to calm the situation,’’ she said, calling on the parties to show ‘’restraint.’’

She expressed the hope for a European initiative: ‘We have to use diplomacy, but with 27 countries, with the EU, it is always difficult to have a single position. So we need a coherent approach to the discussion’, she said.

Within the Belgian government, the Greens and Socialists are pushing for a firm stance on the escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinians, even calling for sanctions against Israel.

“I hear people asking for sanctions. But we are not the first to do that, we must first initiate dialogue, first force a ceasefire,’’ the Belgian Foreign Minister said.

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EU

'Time to open up to citizens': Conference on the Future of Europe launched

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The Conference on the Future of Europe was officially launched on 9 May with a ceremony at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

The Conference aims to allow Europeans to share their ideas of Europe and formulate proposals for future EU policies.

The inaugural event was the focal point of Europe Day celebrations and followed the launch of the multilingual digital platform of the Conference in April that will collect all contributions and facilitate debate.

French President Emmanuel Macron, European Parliament President David Sassoli, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke at the ceremony in the presence of Erasmus+ students and members of the Conference's executive board.

More than 500 citizens attended remotely appearing on large screens in the chamber. Ministers, MEPs, members of national parliaments and other guests also joined the event remotely.

All Europeans invited to contribute

Speakers at the ceremony said that the start of the Conference presented an opportunity for people to get involved and shape the EU’s future.

“We are at a time when citizens want to take responsibility, they want to have a say in the policies that affect their daily life, their future, the future of the planet,” said European Parliament president David Sassoli. “It is time to open up to involve citizens more in public life, and that is the purpose of this Conference.”

“Our Union needs a breath of new democratic life and that’s the aim of the Conference on the Future of Europe that we are launching together today,” said French president Emmanuel Macron, opening the ceremony. “I hope that this Conference will see the return of great projects, great ambitions, great dreams.”

Speaking on behalf of the Council presidency, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa said: “This official launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe is a message of confidence in the future that we want to convey to all citizens of Europe.” He addressed all Europeans following the event saying: “This conference is open. It's open, so that all of you can participate.”

“We must listen to all voices - whether critical or complimentary - and ensure that we properly follow up on whatever is agreed. But I do believe that this Conference is a real opportunity to bring Europeans together and to rally around a common ambition for our future, just as previous generations did,” said Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

The co-chairs of the executive board of the Conference, Guy Verhofstadt (Parliament), Ana Paula Zacarias (Council) and Dubravka Šuica (Commission) answered recorded questions.

There were live performances by French violinist Renaud Capuçon and the Karski Quartet - a string quartet of Polish and French musicians based in Brussels.

Do you have proposals for what the EU should do? Share them on the Conference’s digital platform and get involved.

Launch of the Conference 

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Disabilities

A new ambitious EU Disability Strategy for 2021-2030

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Following Parliament’s recommendations, the European Commission adopted an ambitious post-2020 disability strategy. Discover its priorities. Society 

The European Parliament called for an inclusive society in which the rights of people living with disabilities are protected and where there is no discrimination.

In June 2020, Parliament set out its priorities for a new post-2020 EU Disability Strategy, building upon the European Disability Strategy for 2010-2020.

In March 2021, the Commission adopted the Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030 encompassing Parliament’s main recommendations:

  • The mainstreaming of the rights of all people living with disabilities into all policies and areas.
  • Recovery and mitigation measures to avoid people with disabilities getting disproportionally affected by health crises such as COVID-19.
  • Equal access for people with disabilities to health care, employment, public transport, housing.
  • The implementation and further development of the EU disability card pilot project, which allows for the mutual recognition of disabilities in some EU countries.
  • People with disabilities, their families and organisations were part of the dialogue and will be part of the process of implementation.

People living with disabilities in Europe: facts and figures  

  • There are an estimated 87 million people with disabilities in the EU.
  • The employment rate of people with disabilities (aged 20-64) stands at 50.8%, compared to 75% for people without disabilities. 
  • 28.4% of people with disabilities in the EU are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, compared to 17.8% of the general population.  
A differently-abled man working in an amputee shop for production of prosthetic extremity parts.©Hedgehog94/AdobeStock
A man working in an amputee shop on the production of a prosthetic extremity parts.©Hedgehog94/AdobeStock  

EU disability measures so far

The European Disability Strategy was put in place to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 

  • An international legally binding human rights treaty setting minimum standards to protect the rights of people with disabilities 
  • The EU and all member states have ratified it 
  • Both EU and member states are obliged to implement the obligations, according to their competences 

Among the concrete initiatives launched thanks to the European Disability Strategy is the European Accessibility Act, which ensures that more products and services like smartphones, tablets, ATMs or e-books are accessible to people with disabilities.

The directive on web accessibility means people with disabilities have easier access to online data and services online because websites and apps operated by public sector institutions, such as hospitals, courts or universities, are required to be accessible.

The Erasmus+ student exchange programme promotes the mobility of participants with disabilities.

EU rules also ensure improved access to transport and better passenger rights for people living with disabilities.

Find out more on EU policies for a more social Europe.

Find out more 

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