Full Graphic Disclosure

November 12th, 2010 by Phil Mattera

Forget Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man. Federal regulators want people to think of disease, birth defects and death when they pick up a package of cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration, implementing legislation passed by Congress last year, has just released three dozen proposed enhanced warning labels that manufacturers would have to print on each pack of cancer sticks.

In the place of the plain text warnings that have appeared on tobacco packaging for years, these labels would be much larger and much more visually striking. The proposals include, for example, photos of a smoker in an open coffin, a mother blowing cigarette smoke at her infant child, and a sickly cancer victim.

The main objective of the warnings is to encourage existing smokers to quit and the dissuade children from picking up the dangerous habit. But apart from consumer behavior modification, the labels can be seen as a form of disclosure—disclosure of the harmful effects of a product.

The need for bold messages about deleterious aspects of the things we buy is not limited to cigarettes. It might make sense to apply the FDA’s approach to a whole range of goods and services. For example:

  • SUV models shown to be prone to rollovers should come not just with a plain-text sticker showing miles per gallon, but also full-color photos of mangled vehicles with bleeding drivers and passengers.
  • Electric bills sent by utilities relying on coal-fired power plants should be required to include photographs of floods, droughts and other effects of catastrophic climate change.
  • The pumps at gas stations should be adorned with photographs of oil spills and refinery disasters.
  • A variety of products sold by Wal-Mart should have packaging containing images of the oppressive Chinese sweatshops in which they were produced.
  • Stores selling gold jewelry should display photographs showing the despoiled land around the cyanide-leaching facilities in which the precious metal is mined.
  • Producers of dangerous pharmaceuticals should be required not just to mention possible injurious side effects, which most people have tuned out, but to show images of actual victims.
  • Health insurance providers should have to send out pictures of policyholders who died because an expensive treatment was rejected by the company.
  • Perhaps manufacturers of the worst junk food should be required to air commercials with actors who are morbidly obese.
  • And, of course, gun sellers should have to hand out gory photos of victims of accidental discharges.

Given the exalted status of commercial free speech in this country, these ideas could never come to pass. Yet there is still a serious issue to address: How do we turn dry data about corporate harms into messages people pay attention to?

The objective, however, is not just to change consumer behavior but also that of producers. All disclosure is meant to highlight an activity that is subject to abuse and hopefully curb those abuses. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory is designed to get manufacturers to clean up their production processes – and has had a positive impact. Campaign contribution disclosure is meant discourage the big-money takeover of elections (there’s obviously been a lot less progress on that front, especially now that much corporate electoral spending can take place anonymously). Disclosure of executive compensation is supposed to check the relentless march toward lavish CEO salaries, bonuses and stock options (another less than rousing success).

The fact that disclosure does not immediately cure the problem it is meant to highlight does not undermine the case for transparency. It may simply mean that the form of the disclosure is not compelling enough. That’s the beauty of the FDA approach to cigarettes.

In replacing the misleading feel-good images that marketers have long sought to associate with even the most noxious products, the aggressive warning labels begin to force corporations to be honest about what they sell and consumers to come to grips with the true nature of much of what they consume. This form of anti-advertising may begin to liberate us from the illusions of our manufactured desires.

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