By Donella Meadows
–October 14, 1993–
In the Western world we’ve built up resistance to the visual, aural, and mental pollution of advertising. We doubt, we laugh, we turn off. The advertisers counter with brighter colors, louder noises, wilder images. We close down our senses.
Eastern Europeans had no chance to harden up before their ideological wall fell and multinational advertisers rolled over their borders. Almost overnight intrusive ads sprouted everywhere. A tram line in Budapest was painted pink and dubbed the “Barbie Line.” Barges began to chug back and forth on the Danube, smack in the middle of the most scenic views of the city, dragging chains of floating billboards.
If you aren’t toughened against that kind of hype, it can make you furious.
So activists in Budapest bicycle around every night spray-painting billboards. According to the InterPress Service, about 20 percent of the cigarette ads in the city are scrawled with the word “Cancer.” Other ads are covered with graffiti saying “Don’t be fooled,” or “All ads lie.” McDonalds posters are hit with a pre-printed, glued-on banner reading “Filth of the West.”
The young people responsible for this desecration call their group Anti-Ad Action. They say that advertisements “subtly brainwash you” and “encourage consumerism and, as a consequence, pollution.” Their sprayed-on or glued-on commentary includes a post office box, so volunteers can join them.
Last February in the Czech Republic 6628 schools received a colorful leaflet, which read, “Dear parents, dear children, one of the main priorities of the Procter & Gamble company is sponsorship of education by supporting the school system. P&G, in cooperation with Apple computers, and under the patronage of the Ministry of Education, is organizing a competition with the name: School and Computer — the Basis of Life.”
For a school to enter, each student must collect at least 10 coupons from P&G products — more than that, if they want to win. The 20 schools collecting the most coupons per student will each receive five Apple computers.
Milan Caha, of the National Center for Environmental Education in Prague, calculates that the average price of products listed in the competition is 90 Czech crowns (Kc). Every student then would have to buy P&G products worth on average 900 Kc. If all schools participated, P&G would gross at least 3 billion Kc — about 600 times the retail value of the prize computers.
A good, old-fashioned corporate scam, I thought, when I heard about it. I can remember scrambling for coupons as a child, on behalf of my school, my church, my Girl Scout troupe. But the National Center for Environmental Education, along with other environmental organizations, was less tolerant. It published an open letter to the Minister of Education. It is immoral to use the schools to promote products not related in any way to education, it said. It is even more immoral for the Ministry to promote the idea of consumption as the way to success.
Clearly these people have a long way to go before they become properly cynical consumers.
The Ministry of Education replied after a long delay, to affirm its support of the competition. Procter & Gamble replied instantly. The company published a defense of its project and invited the environmentalists to its Prague office for a “discussion.” In the meeting, Caha tells me, they were offered both carrots and sticks: “Couldn’t your organization use a small contribution?” and “You’d better get some good lawyers.”
P&G had prepared a letter for the protesters to sign, affirming the environmentally friendly practices of the company and apologizing for the mistakes of their previous letter. They refused. A “fax war” followed. It continued, without producing any agreement, until the end of the school year.
Meanwhile the National Center for Environmental Education approached the schools with an alternative competition, entitled “Less Consumption — Chance for Life.” It suggested that teachers and students organize discussions about advertising, consumption, and environmental protection at the level of a school, a family, and an individual, and that they send their conclusions to the school management, parents, the Ministry of Education, and P&G, with copies to the National Center.
P&G never announced how many schools entered its competition, or who won. The National Center received letters from 62 schools.
Two teachers in Bezno reported: “We distributed materials about both competitions among the students, explaining to them the impact of P&G products on the environment. We let the students decide which competition to enter. Not one of our 176 students chose to participate in the competition promoting high consumption of the harmful products of P&G.”
A sixth grade class from Hradec Kralove said: “Our class decided not to participate in the P&G competition. We don’t like polluted water, sea, and air. We don’t like that the forest around our town is dying. We would like to contribute to saving the Earth.”
A teacher from Postolprty wrote to P&G: “We are sorry for your underestimation of the work and attitudes of teachers. The P&G leaflet, which came to our school, went directly into the box for used paper. Do you really think we are ignorant of environmental education?”
It’s not easy to be a sophisticated modern consumer, but we’re sending our experts over there. They’ll learn.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993