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Corporate Nov 23, 2012

Ads everywhere: Do we want a society where everything’s for sale?

By Vivek Kaul

Innovation is a weird word. It means different things to different people. For people working in the marketing department of a newspaper it sometimes means an advertisement which makes it difficult for the readers to read the newspaper.

It could mean a sidebar before the front page which makes holding the newspaper difficult. Or it could mean a newspaper smelling in a particular way on a particular day. It could also mean an advertisement as the front page of the newspaper, something that can really get the regular reader irritated.

And at times it could mean an advertisement being splashed across different stories that appear on the front page of the newspaper. Most editions of The Times of India, for example, have one such advertisement of Britannia Good Day biscuits.

When money becomes the be all and end all of all decisions in life market values tend to crowd out non market values.

The advertisement comes with a tagline har ghante ek tola sona khanke. The only problem with it: the ad that appeared in the Mumbai edition of the newspaper is bang in the middle of a story about a twin murder, where a father strangled his two kids and tried to kill himself.

Surely, the marketing department that places the ads would not have known that a gruesome story would be wrapping the biscuits. Nor could the advertiser have known that his ad may appear at an inappropriate place.

The issue does not relate just to print advertising. Ads placed on internet sites - including possibly this publication - may sometimes send the reading public that money can buy everything. This is how mishaps occur.

I recently spoke to Michael Sandel, the foremost political philosopher of our times, who is a professor at Harvard University. A part of this interview appeared in the Daily News and Analysis. Sandel has most recently written What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

As Sandel put it, "The last three decades have been a period of market triumphalism...We have drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society. And the difference is this. A market economy is a valuable and effective tool for organising productie activity. And market economy has brought prosperity and affluence to countries around the world. A market society is different. A market society is a place where almost everything is up for sale. It's a way of life in which society uses markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods."

The Britannia gold biscuit advertisement is a part of this larger phenomenon. Even a story of a father killing his two daughters and then trying to kill himself is - inadvertently - up for sale. As long as some money can be made, nothing else really matters.

And this is a phenomenon visible at other places as well, even temples. You don't want to stand in the long queue at the Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai; you can just pay a few hundred rupees extra and beat the queue. Other temples across the country allow you special darshan if you can pay a little extra. Religion and god have been turned into a perfect business model which never goes out of fashion. Ask those who paid Rs 2,000 to get darshan of Nirmal Baba.

Sandel gave me an interesting example of Pope Benedict XVI on his first visit to the United States. "When Pope Benedict XVI made his first visit to the United States, free tickets were distributed through local parishes. But the demand for tickets far exceeded the supply of seats. And soon a market for those tickets started to develop and one ticket sold online for more than $200. Church officials condemned this on the grounds that you cannot pay to celebrate a sacrament. Turning what are essentially sacred goods into what are essentially instruments of profits values them in the wrong way."

This phenomenon has even been visible everywhere from war to even medicines. "In Iraq and Afghanistan there were more paid military private contractors on the ground than US military troops. We never had a public debate whether we wanted to outsource war to private companies," said Sandel. "Or consider the aggressive marketing of prescription drugs by pharmaceutical companies in rich countries. The funny thing is if you have ever seen the television commercials that accompany the evening news in the United States, you might come around to believing that the greatest health crisis in the world is not malaria or river blindness or sleeping sickness, but erectile dysfunction," he added.

When money becomes the be-all and end-all of all decisions in life, market values tend to crowd out non-market values. Let me explain this through an example narrated to me by Sandel. "Some years ago in Switzerland they were trying to decide where to locate a nuclear waste site....There was a small town that seemed to be the likely place for the nuclear place site. The residents of the town were asked to, in a survey carried out by economists...if they would vote to accept a nuclear waste site in their community, if the Swiss Parliament decided to build it there. Around 51 percent, or a little over half of the respondents, said they would accept it."

The economists then asked a second question. "They asked the residents of the community that suppose the parliament proposed building the nuclear waste facility in their community and at the same time offered to compensate them with an annual monetary payment, would they still favour it? You might sense that the number would have gone up to 80 or 90 percent but in fact the opposite happened. The support went down and not up. Adding the financial inducement to the offer reduced the rate of acceptance to 25 percent from the earlier 51 percent. Even when the economists upped the monetary incentive further the decision of the people did not change. The residents stood firm even when they were offered yearly cash payments of $8,700, which was more than the median monthly income of the area."

So what is the moral of the story? "This is an illustration in which a cash payment can crowd out a non market value. When the people were asked to make a sacrifice for a common good without paying them the majority said yes out of a sense of civic responsibility. But when they were asked to change their mind (with money) many of them said we didn't want to be bribed. The offer of money changed the character of the offer."

A similar thing could be happening with the sale of advertising space in newspapers to the highest bidder. If Goliath sets a trend, the Davids are more than likely to follow.

And in this case it isn't really a good trend. Do you want newspaper readers reading the story of a father killing his daughters and feeling disturbed by it or do you want them looking at the Britannia Gold biscuit ad which appears bang in the middle of the story and thinking maybe even I can win them? Do we want to build a society that is sensitive to what is happening around it? Or do we want to build a society which thinks of winning gold biscuits all the time?

As Sandel put it, "Most people would agree that there is a difference between prostitution, which is paid sex, and non-instrumental and non-monetised sexual intimacy... So do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?"

And that is something worth thinking about.

Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com. He has worked for the Times Group in the past.

Disclosure: Network18, publisher of Firstpost, competes with the Times Group in some media spaces.

by Vivek Kaul

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