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Challenging the claims of drugmakers – finally

Arguing the merits of cholesterol-lowering medications wouldn’t seem to fit a blog devoted to issues of social, environmental and economic sustainability. But I can’t ignore a fascinating cover story by BusinessWeek that raises serious questions — finally — about the benefits of statins, especially among those who’ve never suffered a heart attack. I’m not a conspiracy theory type, but I’ve watched with growing suspicion the actions of statin producers and their surrogates who seem hell-bent on convincing all Americans they should be taking their drugs.

Congratulations to BusinessWeek for finally drawing attention to the serious questions behind claims of statin producers that have gone virtually unchallenged in the mainstream media:

Americans are bombarded with the message from doctors, companies, and the media that high levels of bad cholesterol are the ticket to an early grave and must be brought down. Statins, the message continues, are the most potent weapons in that struggle. The drugs are thought to be so essential that, according to the official government guidelines from the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP), 40 million Americans should be taking them. Some researchers have even suggested—half-jokingly—that the medications should be put in the water supply, like fluoride for teeth. Statins are sold by Merck (MRK) (Mevacor and Zocor), AstraZeneca (AZN) (Crestor), and Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY) (Pravachol) in addition to Pfizer. And it’s almost impossible to avoid reminders from the industry that the drugs are vital. A current TV and newspaper campaign by Pfizer, for instance, stars artificial heart inventor and Lipitor user Dr. Robert Jarvik. The printed ad proclaims that “Lipitor reduces the risk of heart attack by 36%…in patients with multiple risk factors for heart disease.” So how can anyone question the benefits of such a drug?

Read the article and find out before you ask your doctor about Lipitor.

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008
Posted in Business & Economics, Marketing | No Comments »

Times are tough, better go shopping

So it looks like you’ll be receiving an $800 economic stimulant come April 15 ($1600 per household). All of this courtesy of Bush and Congress (if they do the president’s bidding). I know what you’re thinking. You really want to save your tax rebate, pay down your credit card debt or donate it to charity. The last thing you want to do is head out to the mall, right? But wait, there’s our president urging you, as he did after 9/11, to go shopping. That’s what we Americans do when times get tough.

“Letting Americans keep more of their own money should increase consumer spending,” Bush informed the media today.

It’s practically un-American to even imagine you would sock the money away. Or hand it over to a family whose idea of consumer spending is putting food on the table. Or share it with an environmental organization that believes more consumption is the last thing we ought to be promoting.

No, consider it your duty as a citizen to indulge your fantasy for a new HD television and an overstuffed chair to plop down in front of it. After all, buying more stuff that you don’t need is what will keep our economy strong and growing.

As for those fringe dwellers who want you to believe unbridled consumer spending is exactly what’s wrong with our economy today, tell them to get a life.


Making the wrong argument for sustainability

Call me a hopeless idealist, but I happen to believe we need no other motivation for living more sustainably than simply doing the right thing. I’m no fan of leading with competitive, economic or profit-based appeals when arguing for sustainability, as The Oregonian did earlier this week in their editorial, “Racing to stay ahead of the pack.”

The editors cautioned Portlanders that we can’t stop doing what has made us a world leader in sustainability because other cities worldwide are “hellbent on catching up”:

Daily we are reminded just how global, competitive and interconnected the modern economy has become. The consequence is clear: In this new world economic order, only the nimble will thrive. This fresh market reality places cities — not generally known for being light on their feet — in extreme peril. Those that have a clear sense of purpose and direction will flourish. Those lacking this trait will wilt.

Accompanying the written editorial was a cartoon of man in a meeting room pointing to a large poster of a dollar bill and telling his colleagues, “Actually there is one rather compelling ‘green argument’ for sustainability.”

The message was clear: There’s money to be made in sustainability, and if Portland loses its position as a global leader in sustainability, we will also lose out on the economic spoils that go to the victors in this race. Maybe so, but in looking at sustainability through the lens of economics we lose sight of the much greater social and moral imperatives for changing how we live.

The editors got it partially right when they concluded:

Current consumption patterns cannot endure. We all will have to use fewer resources, use them more wisely, reuse them, then recycle them. That is the core of sustainability. That is the manner of living Portland must role-model for the world.

The very fact that our global consumption patterns are unsustainable is all the motivation we need to live more sustainably. And Portland should be the role model for the world because the world desperately needs one. Period.

Let’s just keep doing the right thing. If our economy grows as a result, so be it.


Shedding light on Obama’s choice of identity

As never before, race and gender are playing into the politics of presidential elections. With the Republicans floundering to decide among a slate of undesirable candidates, the Democrats appear almost assured of winning the White House with either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as our new president. Either’s election would be historic.

Lately, I have been wondering how it is that Obama, the son of an Kenyan father and a white American mother, decided to identify himself as African American. What are the issues he had to weigh in making that choice? NPR’s Day to Day news program yesterday asked that question in a piece that discusses the reasoning Obama probably used in calling himself African American rather than biracial. Turns out for Obama to identify as biracial would likely cause more division and confusion among voters than declaring himself to be African American.

In a better world, Obama’s race and Clinton’s gender would not be factors in this campaign, although they clearly are. We haven’t reached a place in our nation’s development of being well past our historic prejudices against women, African Americans and other minorities. Even so, the election of either Obama or Clinton would be a sure sign of progress.

Thursday, January 10th, 2008
Posted in Politics | 1 Comment »

Playing with green Air Jordans in a dead-end game

Say what you will about Nike, they know how to market and sell products. And they seem to take seriously the challenge of becoming a more sustainable manufacturer. Witness the 23rd version of its most high-profile product, the Air Jordan basketball shoe. It’s said to be Nike’s “first premium product designed according to the company’s sustainable standards.”

My question for Nike, and virtually any other manufacturer, is how do you square your boundless desire for growth and its associated requirement to make and sell more products with your stated objective of reducing your environmental impact.

Isn’t it a bit like exercising madly while eating ever-increasing amounts of low-calorie foods, and still expecting to lose weight? You can only exercise so much. Meanwhile, your caloric consumption steadily increases and eventually so does your weight. At some point, you have to start eating fewer calories.

Nike, and consumer products companies like them the world over, must at some point realize that selling ever-increasing amounts of products, no matter how low-cal (green), is an environmentally dead-end game. The earth’s natural resources are finite. Using them in smaller quantities per unit ultimately changes nothing when unit volume is always increasing. And that’s to say nothing about the carbon footprint of companies like Nike that continue to expand office space, send growing numbers of employees on countless airline trips around the globe and ship their products thousands of miles from where they are manufactured to where they are consumed.

Whether Nike or anyone else wants to admit it or not, there’s nothing sustainable about an economy dependent upon growing material consumption. Something has to give. And right now, Earth is doing all the giving. You won’t hear that in the new Air Jordan commercials.


Trusting word of mouth, but for how long?

In advertising circles these days, “word of mouth” has its own acronym (WOM) and trade association (WOMMA), signaling its arrival as a marketing discipline. Companies love good WOM because they believe their customers are likely to believe friends and peers who recommend their products more than any commercial source. While that marketing axiom has been around for decades, what’s changed is the dedication and technology marketers are applying to monitor and generate WOM — or buzz.

So with a raised eyebrow I read an op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times, “Loose Lips Win Elections.” The authors, executives at a research firm, claim that John Edwards and Mike Huckabee performed better than expected in the Iowa caucuses because they benefited from what they called “word of mouth advocates” — evangelistic supporters who spoke to friends and colleagues before and during the caucuses.

Whether by chance or design, such citizen advocates created the explosive growth in support for Mike Huckabee and sustained John Edwards, even as both were vastly outspent by their opponents.

I don’t believe sophisticated presidential campaigns leave anything like this to chance. It was by design that Edwards and Huckabee got their citizen advocates out in large numbers. Good for them. As the op-ed writers noted, both candidates had to do something to counteract the much larger TV advertising campaigns mounted by their chief rivals. And they understandably chose a WOM strategy. According to the authors:

Public trust in all kinds of communication is eroding, with a notable exception: word of mouth…Our mid-December survey of Iowa voters found 38 percent saying they trusted information provided by TV ads, while 69 percent trusted “comments from friends, relatives and colleagues.”

There’s reason to believe even word of mouth will soon suffer the same credibility loss as other forms of communications. Why? Because marketers are increasingly manipulating and instigating word of mouth, as Adweek magazine explained in last week’s issue:

People, of course, have always acted as brand ambassadors by sharing recommendations with friends and associates…Now, however, these interactions have become supercharged thanks to a new breed of brand ambassadorship programs that formalize the relationship between marketers and average consumers passionate about their products. These programs “hire” consumers, via incentives and rewards, to act as part PR agents, part sales reps and part evangelists. They mix the spontaneity of buzz building with technology to instigate, guide and measure what repeat customers are saying to each other about their brands.

As citizens begin to understand how these so-called ambassador programs work, it won’t be long before many of us start doubting the credibility of certain acquaintances or colleagues who speak with unbridled fervor for a brand — whether a product or a candidate. After all, they may be receiving compensation of some sort for speaking out. I say “may” because right now there’s no guarantee these enthusiastic consumers or voters will divulge their relationship to a commercial or political entity. As Adweek explains:

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a trade group of agencies and marketers who use word-of-mouth marketing, has instituted an informal, but largely unenforced, industry policy that brand reps must always disclose their relationship to the product or service when promoting it.

So whether on behalf of products or candidates, word of mouth appears destined to become yet another suspect source of communication. That means the Huckabees and Edwards of the next Iowa campaign won’t be able to count on vocal supporters to sway opinion like they did this time around. And worse yet, the rest of us are left to wonder whose words we can still trust and whose opinions have been put up for sale.