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Consumer groups bite back on a global scale

 

By Christopher Zinn

ABC News
November 1, 2007

 

There's been an interesting coincidence in this week's international gathering of consumer groups in Sydney and CHOICE's own wish list for the new government.

One of the highlights of the congress has been its global Bad Products awards; three of the four gongs highlight areas where we want to see action to benefit all Australians.

They include a single national and improved system for product safety, an end to the promotion of unhealthy food to kids and better regulation of pharmaceutical marketing.

All these purely Australian calls find an echo in the overseas judges' decisions when it came to shaming world's worst corporate practice.

There are 77,000 multinational companies operating in the world today, which is around twice the number 15 years ago. As corporations do business on an international level, so must the consumer movement campaign on the international level.

The International Bad Product Awards set out to hold corporations to account on a global level. The finalists were chosen by Consumers International, the umbrella group for more than 200 consumer organisations around the world of which CHOICE is just one.

We have chosen four multinational companies from four massive consumer industries - toys, drinks, food and pharmaceuticals. Two of the four products were available here.

The Bad Toys Award went to Mattel for the recall of various products due to to design faults and the use of poisonous levels of lead paint, which led to recalls in Australia and around the world.

The company did the right thing in pulling its products, but consumer safety should have been at the heart of production from the outset.

The bad drinks marketing award went to Coca-Cola for repackaging tap water.

In 2004, Coca-Cola was forced to take Dasani out of UK shops after admitting that it contained nothing more than tap water. As a result it's never made it to the shelves in Germany, France or - thankfully - Australia.

But sales of Dasani are still rising in the US and it is making waves in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico and several other Latin American countries.

Coke is not doing anything illegal, but the advertising of their bottled water as significantly superior to local tap water is misleading.

The third award goes to Kellogg's for advertising junk food to kids.

Kellogg's is known the world over for its breakfast cereals.

In Australia, Kellogg's has used a popular children's entertainer to publicise Coco Pops, and used online social-networking techniques aimed at kids.

Many of their cereals have used Shrek to boost sales.

But the issue here is not only how they market, but what they market.

Kellogg's is one of a number of international food companies that make money by selling products high in fat, sugar and salt.

Threatened with litigation in the US, Kellogg's has agreed to change some of their marketing practices, however we believe they are doing too little, too slowly.

Consumers International is committed to campaigning against the marketing of junk food to children. It has topped the agenda at this week's World Congress in Sydney, which ends today.

With our membership we are working on international recommendations on marketing to under 16s, to give children everywhere a healthy start.

The final International Bad Product Award went Takeda Pharmaceuticals for advertising sleeping pills to children.

The US subsidiary of the Japanese drug firm took out a TV advertisement in September 2006 for its sleeping drug Rozerem. It was a 'reminder' ad which, under US direct to consumer adverts (or DTCA) law, drug companies can use to keep consumers aware of the need to buy their products.

This particular DTCA ad was released at the beginning of the school year and used images of children, chalkboards, school books and a school bus.

It doesn't take a PhD in marketing to see that this is a brazen attempt to suggest parents seek out the sleeping drug for their children, to help them get through the stress of term starting.

This drug isn't available in Australia but the case demonstrates the length to which pharmaceutical companies can go to increase sales of their products and how weak regulation can foster irresponsible corporate behaviour.

Christopher Zinn is media spokesman for consumer group CHOICE.

 

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