Our lead story last month focused on how the federal government has assumed the power to decide what can be sold in school vending machines. The article went on to discuss how a uniform federal standard may, at least, benefit operators by simplifying compliance across state lines, and potentially helping to counter the old "junk food" allegation.
Also in the October issue, a column entitled "Supreme Jeopardy" by music & games editor Marcus Webb summarized an action against California's prohibition on "violent" videogames in locations frequented by minors. The case now is before the Supreme Court, and its outcome may have long-term consequences for the coin-operated amusement industry.
What do these two stories have in common? I'm glad you asked…
The vending industry's response to USDA's new school vending rules illustrates the adaptability of the market. But I think it also points to a strategic weakness: we have allowed those who want to put us out of business to take control of the language, and so define how the consumer thinks. If our opponents can get the public to consider a wholesome item that has been enjoyed for centuries as a "junk food" because it does not contain a fashionable mixture of nutrients, then powerful forces will swing into action to protect people against it, whether they like it or not.
There was a good deal of discussion around here when we saw the news photos of a vending machine that dispenses single-serving packages of baby carrots in schools under the slogan, "Eat 'em like junk food!" We agreed that it is an appealing campaign, showing that vending machines can sell anything the consumer wants. It's being conducted by an organization, "A Bunch of Carrot Farmers," that maintains a youth-oriented website at www.babycarrots.com. This features (among other things) "the world's first carrot-crunch-powered videogame," available at the Apple iPhone App Store; it's worth a visit. The only objection I have to the commercial is that it assumes that viewers associate vending machines with junk food -- and many probably do.
A similar problem confronts videogame operators confronting allegations that "violent" videogames somehow affect the mental health of their players. The courts repeatedly have maintained that videogames enjoy the same constitutional protection as books and movies, and cannot be outlawed just because somebody doesn't like them. But our adversaries keep on trying: "videogame violence" just trips off the tongue. They are astute marketers.
It's important to recognize what is going on here. There is nothing new in any of it. Exaggerated beliefs in the powers of certain food types to promote or degrade health certainly date back to the 19th Century, and fad diets surely existed before that. Similarly, the idea that activities enjoyed by young people are evil has been around for a very long time.
What has changed today is that contemporary media can spread distortions of fact with unprecedented scope and speed. This has permitted a large number of people to be rendered insecure by scare headlines and advertising by so-called "public interest" groups. And that has enabled politicians and others with an interest in expanded government to step up with proposals to defend those insecure people from the supposed threats.
I read an account of this process in a New York Times article about the internal discussion that took place within the city's Health Department in the runup to of New York City's scare campaign against sugared soft drinks (Oct. 28 edition, online at: nytimes.com/2010/10/29/nyregion/29fat.html?_r=1).
It seems that the staff nutritionists were concerned about the statement that "drinking a can of soda a day can make you 10 pounds fatter a year," because the actual effect of consuming that much soda is conditioned by "exercise, genes, gender, age and overall calorie consumption." What worries me is that nobody criticized the campaign's objective -- just that the message had been oversimplified to the point of falsehood, and so was vulnerable to challenge.
It probably is not a coincidence that Mayor Bloomberg, and New York State Governor David Paterson, were attempting to get a "soda tax" passed. But the follow-up reader reactions suggest that there are many people who really think that if something isn't actively beneficial, it should be penalized or prohibited.
Here's where language comes in. We can't fight back by making hot-headed accusations; we are outgunned. What we can do is refrain from adopting our opponents' language and their premises in our own sales presentations.
We all know by now that government intervention is here to stay, and we need to learn how to adapt to it. What we must do is collect factual information, stay together and refrain from destroying each other.