Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Ecology and marketing: beware of scams

Last weekend, wanting to eradicate undesirable weeds that invade our terrace, I went to a gardening centre to buy an herbicide; I accept the fact that dandelion be part of our lawn's ecological balance but refuse to see it invade the patio. On the other hand, concerned to use a weed killer without any toxicity for humans and animals when applied, and which doesn't leave any toxic residue in the environment, I wanted a so called ecological product. The one recommended by the merchant satisfied these criteria; its label mentioned the active element, acetic acid, in a proportion of 62,5 g per litre. I figured that it was an acetic acid solution a little more concentrated than vinegar. I thus bought a one litre spray bottle costing of 7,97 $ Can.

I applied the product; there was indeed a strong vinegar odour. I must admit its effectiveness; after an hour or two, the plants already started to desiccate. On the other hand, curiosity pushed me to search the Internet; I learned that commercial vinegar was usually a 5% acetic acid solution, that is to say 1,01 g per millilitre, therefore 101 g per litre. Vinegar sold in grocery stores is thus a solution 1,6 TIMES more CONCENTRATED than the product I bought. Pursuing my investigation further, I consulted the manufacturer's Web site; the detailed descriptive product leaflet indeed mentions as active ingredients acetic acid mainly (5-10 Wt.%), and in a lesser proportion, citric acid (3-7 Wt.%).

I was surprised, indeed shocked. Would it be a less concentrated solution of vinegar to which a small amount of citric acid was added? Save that the presence of a small proportion of lemon juice is the key of the effectiveness of this product? Being neither a chemist, nor a horticulturist, I cannot pass judgement with certainty on this question. On the other hand, if such is NOT the case, perhaps I was swindled! I bought vinegar at 7,97 $ Can. a litre, when I could have bought 4 litres for 2,59 $ Can. in a supermarket (Loblaws, «no name» brand)! I hate to admit this, but I fear this may be the case. The Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture has tested vinegar, including the household variety, as a weed killer; you can read the results for yourself.

Ecological products are popular. Motivated by easy and quick profit, several companies undoubtedly will try to exploit the consumer with various «environmentally safe» products whose effectiveness is doubtful, or which could be replaced by inexpensive solutions.

Once again, the Latin expression «Caveat emptor», buyer beware, makes a lot of sense. I would very much like that people who have precise information concerning the product mentioned, or ecological products in general, post this information on the blog.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Consumption and narcissism

Absorbed with grading student papers and exams, I present a shorter than usual chronicle today. While briefer, it will nonetheless be interesting, because I know the subject to be highly controversial and that my comments will leave no one indifferent. Some will applaud my intervention, but others, perhaps a majority, will disagree with me. I nevertheless allow myself this criticism. As I recently wrote a reader of this blog: «If I did not want to be criticized, I need only not publicize my opinions».

Some of us have seen advertising or a newspaper article concerning the «Body Worlds 2» exhibition presented at the Montreal Science Centre, from May 10 to September 16 2007. Thanks to the plastination process, those wishing to do so may now preserve their body indefinitely, and even display it publicly after their death. I agree that it is an innovative and useful technology to train scientists, doctors for instance. However, I have yet to be convinced about the allegedly educational and artistic use proposed; I don't understand why some reporters praise the genius of exhibiting corpses. I see nothing brilliant about exposing artificially preserved human bodies in grotesque postures.

In faculties of Medicine, respect is demanded for bodies donated to science by people wanting to contribute to the advancement of knowledge. Where is respect in such a display of human flesh?

If the consumer society has favoured the emergence of a fundamentally individualistic, indeed selfish, world, we have now reached a summit in narcissism for people who thus display themselves after their death. For those paying to see this gruesome show, it is more appropriate to talk about a voyeurism-like phenomenon. Moreover, it is truly revolting to see some get rich using such dubious methods.

Egocentricity in some, voyeurism or craving for profit in others; it is quite sad to see people thus forgetting human’s divine nature!

I'm eager to read your comments… whether you agree with me or not.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The use of fear in SAAQ’s advertising

Again this year, the SAAQ (Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec) displays a lack of discernment in its choice of advertising theme. Confronted with a degrading road safety record, it chooses to use fear and guilt to induce an attitude change in faulty drivers. The chosen theme for 2007 is «Accidents hurt… a lot of people» and the setting is dramatic not to say plainly morbid. You may watch those ads on the SAAQ Web site.

Now, for a long time, studies show that the use of fear and guilt is not without danger. In fact, this strategy may induce a reaction opposite to the one intended (D. Cohen, Advertising, 1972, p. 418): «However, studies in the communication process have indicated that where people are highly anxious, the fear approach may not be successful, but in fact may boomerang so that the highly anxious individual would not accept the message». Furthermore, studies by Janis and Feshbach (1961) and Terwilliger (1963) have shown that a message calling upon fear, used for already anxious people, stimulates a person’s defences and impedes the change of attitude wished for. This phenomenon is confirmed by recent studies (K. E. Clow et D. Baack, Integrated Advertising, Promotion, & Marketing Communications, 2002, p. 308): «On the other hand, an advertisement with a high level of fear can be detrimental. A message that is too strong causes feelings of anxiety. This leads viewers to avoid watching the ad, by changing the channel or muting the sound».

It is surprising to see the SAAQ use this type of advertising again in 2007, since their use did not succeed in improving the road safety record; on the contrary, based on this organization’s own survey, it has worsened if anything, thus showing the low utility of the concept.

In addition to the risk of seeing those ads not allowing the SAAQ to meet its commendable objectives of reducing accidents and deaths on the roads, one must also consider another perverse effect: that of traumatizing sensitive people, in no way targeted by this advertising.

Completely on the other hand, the CSST (Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail) understands that intense fear and shocking scenes are useless, even harmful. If the 2002 advertising «Do not let death do its work» called upon really gruesome scenes, the 2007 campaign «Do everything so that nothing happens» is on the contrary very positive; it illustrates the benefits of safety, using a subtle level of fear, which suggests dangers without causing negative reactions.

What do you think of SAAQ and CSST advertising?

Do you believe that SAAQ ads are too shocking? Too gruesome?

Do you agree with the use of the fear and the guilt in advertising from governmental or paragovernmental agencies?

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Kyoto and societal expects

The media storm surrounding the Kyoto protocol, subsequent to Minister Baird’s announcement of a plan to reduce greenhouse gases, is a wonderful occasion for me to present the notion of societal expects.

A growing number people seem to surround their consumption with concerns based on fundamental values of social equity and environmental safeguard. For example, statistics from Ipsos indicate that, between 2000 and 2002, the proportion of French people «having heard about equitable trade» almost quadrupled, reaching 32% (Plate-Forme pour le Commerce Équitable). In the United Kingdom, the Fairtrade Foundation reports that in 2005 «50% of the adult population can now identify the certification mark, up from 25% in 2003 and 39% last year». In France, fair trade products are already very popular, to the point of finding whole sections offering such products in Leclerc, Carrefour and Champion supermarkets. Thus the appearance of the «Fairtrade» label to certify equitable trade products.

True consumer requirements, societal expects are involved in all sectors and are impossible to ignore by companies. For instance, low consumption vehicles to reduce environmental pollution harmful and preserve oil, a limited resource. Also think of raw material recycling such as paper, glass, etc. Societal expects also concern recovery of dangerous material, those of the information technology industry for instance, whose products contain toxic metals. The service sector is also affected; several stakeholders in tourism have ecological (ecotourism) and social (sustainable tourism) concerns. One can also mention cultural heritage conservation, a major stake for several town planners, architects and other stakeholders in urban planning.

The highly mediated outburst around the Kyoto protocol and the ensuing political hijacking demonstrate that expects, societal and other, can often be emotive rather than strictly rational. Minister Baird’s plan is rational; it proposes a balanced solution between economic and environmental constraints. I’m quite certain that Premier Harper’s government will do more when it CAN. Criticisms are more of an emotive and symbolic nature; Kyoto has become a symbol and the warhorse of irreducible environmentalists. This illustrates particularly well the fact that societal expects may be related to, indeed become themselves, symbolic or aspirational expects.

What do you think?

Is the alarmist talk of some people more emotive than rational?

Must the Kyoto protocol be a statement of principles that guide human activities or a set of constraining environmental norms?

Are you personally satisfied with the plan suggested last week by Minister Baird?

What other concrete and achievable measures would you like to propose to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases?