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Consumer mouse that is roaring

By Peter Kell

Sydney Morning Herald
October 29
, 2007

A large multinational drug company recently produced advertisements in the US for a sleeping drug aimed at children starting school.

"It's back to school season" the ad stated, showing pictures of children and chalkboards before stating that parents should ask their doctor about the product.

The drug's side effects of increased thoughts of suicide in depressed patients, and the inappropriateness of this drug for children, were somehow missed in the marketing campaign. This is the sort of irresponsible action that has led to consumer groups joining together in a global campaign against unethical drug marketing.

Shrek has been the face of irresponsible fast-food marketing to children across the globe. Hamburgers, chocolates and sugary breakfast cereals have carried the smiling ogre from the movie screen into the mouths of children from Sydney to London.

How can we confront the global advertising juggernaut built around these popular cartoon characters?

Consumer trust in corporations has declined in both rich and poor countries. For example, on the issue of global warming, cross-country research shows that only 10 per cent of consumers trust what companies tell them about their actions in response to this problem.

As consumers we face the reality that product standards in other countries can have a big impact on our choices, as shown by the recent recalls of Mattel toys from China. And we are increasingly reminded that our consumption decisions have impacts on both the environment and the working conditions of people around the world.

Companies now operate across borders as a matter of course, and consumer organisations must do the same.

After all, the internet has opened opportunities to buy goods and services from all over the world. Many of these opportunities have offered consumers more competition and wider choices.

They have also opened up new ways to get ripped off, so it has been good to see regulators such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission taking an active interest in online commerce.

Interestingly, these new cross-border consumer opportunities have also exposed inconsistencies in the way corporations treat consumers in different countries.

It is simply not good enough anymore for companies to apply decent standards in only one country. In July 11 multinational food and drink companies announced they would adopt self-imposed limits on advertising to children under 12 in the United States. Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Unilever are three of the companies in this group.

"Why, if these companies now admit to the harm they are causing, do so many not appear to be applying these measure to consumer advertising outside the US?" asked Richard Lloyd, director-general of Consumers International.

This is the sort of question being put with increasing force to companies in all sectors of the world's economies.

Choice was recently visited by officials of the Chinese Government agency responsible for product safety. They wanted to see how we tested toys and children's products in our laboratories, with a particular focus on product safety. This is a positive step to build an internationally consistent approach to safer children's products.

It is also an example of the way in which consumer responses in the market help raise the pressure for better standards across borders.

When consumer organisations from more than 85 countries meet in Sydney this week for the Consumers International World Conference, the focus will be on issues that affect consumers in rich and poor countries; for example, credit and debt problems, food and obesity, sustainable consumption and dodgy pharmaceutical promotion.

An international approach to consumer protection is having an impact. New standards are being developed by the International Organisation for Standardisation that look beyond product safety and reliability to consider the social impacts of production.

A new set of international standards focuses on providing consumers with much clearer information about supply chains. After all, organisations not only have a responsibility for the goods or services they directly produce, but also need to ensure that their suppliers are not engaging in poor practices.

Pushing sleeping pills to children and marketing sugary snacks in the face of a global obesity crisis are just two of the reasons why we should all be calling corporations to account.


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