Archive for the ‘marketing’ Category

Herbal Remedy Scam

It’s a quality control problem at best, and outright fraud at worst.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Guelph used genetic analysis to study a range of commercial herbal remedies and found a shocking disparity between what was on the label and what’s actually in the bottle.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the researchers looked at 44 herbal products sold by 12 companies, using DNA ‘barcode testing’ to determine what plant species were in the bottle.

The result: some products contained other generally inert species of plants (for example wheat, to which some people are allergic, and rice, to which some people are allergic), without those ingredients being listed on the label. Other products were adulterated with potentially toxic plants like St. John’s wort or senna. Others simply contained none of the active ingredient they were supposed to contain. And yet these products are commercially available at a major pharmacy chain near you.

The study didn’t name names — the study was effectively about quality control within the industry, rather than about naming-and-shaming particular companies. But it’s a damning indictment for the industry quite generally. (Just two companies among the 12 in the study sold products that were just what they said they were.)

Of course, many readers will know that this is not the first reason we’ve had to doubt the integrity of the herbal remedy industry, or the ‘natural’ health product industry more generally. As others have written elsewhere (including pharmacists with the scientific and critical-thinking chops to know the difference), Canada’s regulations regarding natural health products leave much to be desired.

But it’s nothing to laugh about. Unlike homeopathic remedies, which (unless adulterated) generally contain no active ingredients at all, herbal remedies can have actual effects, though those effects may not live up to the claims implied by their labels. Herbal remedies, while under-regulated, can at least have real biological effects. That’s a source of pride for makers of herbals, situated as they are within an alternative-medicine industry that is rife with outright fraud and delusion.

But it also means that the honest bottlers of herbal remedies should be at the front of the line, lobbying government hard for stricter regulations. Perhaps even more crucially they should be doing their best to convince the major chains that there’s a difference between them and the companies whose products failed the Guelph study so miserably. In the end, it’s as much an ethical matter as a matter of self-interest. The public deserves to be better served, and who better than those within the industry itself to make sure that it happens?

Food Labels that Matter

Product labels are important, both practically and ethically. Reading the label is a key way to make sure the thing you’re buying meets your needs. Labels on products can help inform consumers about what they’re buying, reducing what economists call information asymmetries between buyer and seller. Where substantial information asymmetries exist, voluntary exchanges can fail to live up to the promise of mutual benefit, and society as a whole suffers from the resulting reduction in market efficiency.

Of course, not everything that could be said about a product could possibly be crammed onto a product’s label, so generally the information provided consists of what the maker of the product really wants to brag about, what consumers insist on knowing, and anything beyond that that regulators have seen fit to insist upon.

So precisely what gets labeled, and what form the labelling takes, matters a lot. Now while the moral significance of labels in general is not disputed, just what should be included on labels is hotly debated.

Take, for instance, the question of whether a food product has been genetically modified (GM). Or, more precisely, whether the ancestor of the organism from which a food product was derived was genetically modified by means of a particular set of laboratory procedures. It’s important to be precise, here, because there is virtually nothing that we eat today that hasn’t been ‘genetically modified’ by humans in some loose sense.

If you thought the question of GM labelling had gone away with the demise of California’s Proposition 37 this past November, think again. Washington State is apparently about to hold a vote on the issue, and there are reports that the anti-GM faction has been energized by the battle in California, and perhaps even galvanized by the massive sums of money that ‘big food’ and ‘big ag’ apparently spent to help defeat Prop 37. But as I’ve argued before, the demand for mandatory labelling of GM foods is misguided: the broad scientific consensus is that there’s no reason to worry about GM foods. Making such labelling mandatory, just because some people want to know if their food’s genes have been tweaked in certain ways, would be unjust.

Contrast this with the stunning report recently released by the ocean conservation group, Oceana. Nevermind subtle genetic modifications. Oceana found that a very high proportion of the fish sold in American retail outlets isn’t even from the species indicated on the label. So consumers are buying “snapper” that isn’t really snapper, and “tuna” that isn’t really tuna. Here, consumers are being lied to. Information isn’t just being omitted; the information being given is actually a lie, and so consumers are being cheated.

If the food companies of the world are going to expend money and effort to provide consumers with information, it’s pretty clear which kind of issue they should expend it on.

Pharma and the Spirit of Competition

Once again, the pharmaceutical industry is under attack, and once again it is for all the wrong reasons.

The problem this time is this: many of the new generation of blockbuster drugs are jaw-droppingly expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars per patient per year or even per treatment. Part of the reason is that many of them are from a category of drugs known as “biologics.” Such drugs aren’t made with old-fashioned chemistry, but are instead produced inside living cells, typically genetically modified ones, inside giant vats known as bio-reactors. It’s an expensive new technology. And the big biotech firms that make these drugs are not fond of competition.

According to the New York Times, “Two companies, Amgen and Genentech, are proposing bills that would restrict the ability of pharmacists to substitute generic versions of biological drugs for brand name products.”

The companies claim they’re just trying to protect consumers. The generic versions, they argue, are typically similar, but not identical, to the originals. These aren’t simple drugs like Aspirin or the blood thinner, Coumadin. These are highly complex molecules, and the worry is that even slight differences in the manufacturing process could lead to problematic differences in form and function.

The makers of generics, for their part, acknowledge that worry, and say they’re fine with pharmacists limiting substitution to cases in which the Food and Drug Administration has declared two drugs to be interchangeable. But they oppose any further restrictions, including ones that might be imposed at the state level and for which the name-brand manufacturers are lobbying mightily.

What are we to say, ethically, about efforts by name-brand manufacturers to limit competition and thereby keep prices and profits high? Is it wrong of them to do this in a context in which health spending is out of control, and in which patients can die from being unable to afford a life-saving drug?

But as strange as this may seem, there is arguably nothing wrong with pharma behaviour that harms patients and strains private and public healthcare budgets. They aren’t responsible for the fact that people get sick, and they’re not (usually!) responsible for the decisions made by governments or by insurance companies. A lot of the behaviour on the part of pharma that people complain about is no more wrongful than the behaviour of the woman who invents a better mousetrap, thereby putting employees of the less-good mousetrap maker out of business. Innovative, competitive behaviour is good in the long run, but net social benefit is consistent with less-good outcomes for some.

The real sin, here, isn’t against consumers or governments, but against the market itself.

Markets, and the businesses that populate them, can only promise to be socially beneficial when there is competition. When governments move to foster competition, businesses that profess to believe in free markets cannot rightly cajole governments to do otherwise. The same goes for using lobbyists to encourage government to make a market less competitive. After all, playing by the rules of the game is the fundamental obligation of business. But when it comes to changing the rules of the game, we have to look to the limits implied by the spirit of the game. That’s where pharma is going astray here. Using government to limit competition isn’t just bad ethics; it’s bad capitalism.

Organic Foods and Bad Behaviour

Is labelling foods as “organic” a positive thing or not? The Environmental Working Group certainly thinks so. To support this notion, the EWG has just released its annual “dirty dozen” list, consisting of fruits and veggies that are especially high in pesticide residue.

But check out this recent study, which suggests that seeing and thinking about organic foods can make people less ethical. The researchers report that test subjects asked to look at and rank (basically, to focus on) either a bunch of organic-labelled foods or to look at and rank either comfort foods (e.g., ice cream) or a more neutral food (e.g., mustard). Following this, the test subjects were given tests to evaluate a) their willingness to help a needy stranger, and b) the harshness of their evaluation of various apparent moral transgressions. The result: people exposed to organic foods were both less likely to help others, and more likely to be harshly moralistic.

This is an interesting result in its own right, but it has particular implications for marketing. Very roughly, the study suggests that marketing produce as organic can have negative effects on consumers’ attitudes and behaviour. That is, the study says nothing negative about organic food itself, or about consuming it. The implication is specifically for labelling it and promoting it as organic.

Of course, we can’t immediately condemn such marketing based on this kind of evidence. It may well be that the net effect of selling lots of organic food outweighs the effect such marketing has on people’s attitudes and behaviour. But at very least, this should make us stop and think.

Now, it’s highly unlikely that this effect is specific to organic foods. Presumably, labelling food as organic here is relevant because for many people that label implies something virtuous. So the implication is that promoting foods (or presumably other products) in terms of virtue could be a mistake.

In general, labels that indicate a product’s characteristics help consumers get what they’re looking for. This is especially important with regard to characteristics that can’t be seen with the naked eye, including key characteristics of most so-called ethical products. You can’t tell by looking at an apple, for instance, whether it’s been sprayed with pesticides — unless, of course, you see the “Certified Organic” label on it. Labels of various kinds help people get what they value, and in that way help achieve the promise of a free market.

The alternative to using labels to help people find products that match their own values is to rely on government regulation and industry “best practices.” If there were widespread agreement that organic foods really were better, ethically, they there would be some justification for having government use legislation to drive non-organic foods from the market. We rely on labels and third-party certifications precisely because there isn’t sufficient consensus to warrant a general standard. But the study described above highlights one of the costs of the path we’ve chosen. By moralizing the marketplace we may, ironically enough, be encouraging immoral behaviour.

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Thanks to Andrew Potter for pointing me to the study discussed here.

McDonald’s and the Ethics of Olympic Sponsorship

McDonald’s has been taking some heat over its continuing sponsorship of the Olympics. The fast-food chain recently announced that it would remain a top sponsor of the Olympic games through 2020.

The main charge here seems to be some form of hypocrisy. Critics suppose that there’s some sort of contradiction involved in a sporting event being sponsored by a fast-food chain. But there is, of course, no contradiction at all — at least not for those of use who take both our sports and our junk food in moderation. True, a diet that includes frequent trips to McDonald’s (or Burger King or Wendy’s, etc. etc.) seems inconsistent with a lifestyle aimed at maximal athletic output. There’s a real conflict there. But few of us are aiming at elite sporting status, and relatively few of us (thankfully) make Big Macs a staple. Most of us enjoy both sport and junk food in moderation. For us, the occasional serving of greasy fries does absolutely no harm at all to our athletic aspirations. There’s no contradiction in loving, say, both a Quarter Pounder With Cheese and training for a Half Marathon. So there’s no inherent contradiction involved in McD’s sponsoring the Olympics.

And really, if anyone is to blame, it’s not McDonald’s but the International Olympic Committee, and/or whatever subcommittees or functionaries are assigned the task of signing sponsors. After all, it’s their supposed values, not the fast-food chain’s, that this sponsorship deal presumably violates.

But supposed value-conflicts aside: what about the effect of such the McDonalds/Olympics alliance on, for example, kids? Well, note to start that kids don’t watch the olympics much. As for the rest of us, well we need to come to grips with the fact that our economic system features certain warts. And one of those warts is that the freedom to buy-and-sell means the freedom to sell things the over-consumption of which is harmful. And the freedom to sell such things implies the freedom to advertise them. Is affiliation with McDonald’s jeopardizing the positive impact of the Olympics? So be it. Our system of free commerce is a system that brings with it enormous benefits, far more benefits than will ever be derived from one hypertrophied sporting event.

The True Cost of Conflict of Interest

What does conflict of interest cost?

It was recently reported that certain employees of the Chicago Public Schools food services department were going to be required to undergo ethics training, after it was revealed that they had accepted improper gifts from contractors.

The worry, naturally, is that accepting gifts put those CPS employees into a conflict of interest, a situation in which they were trusted to make good decisions on behalf of CPS, but in which they had an ‘outside’ interest — in this case, gratitude to the gift-givers — that might reasonably be thought likely to warp their judgment. The behaviour here was more specifically a violation of the section of the CPS Code of Ethics that specifically forbids accepting gifts, but the moral root of the problem is conflict of interest.

Now, in addition to the trouble the employees are in, it’s been reported that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to go after two food services companies that had given improper gifts.

Just what have those companies done wrong? What’s wrong with putting someone else in a conflict of interest? I’ve argued before that we might think of this as analogous to suborning perjury. When you intentionally put someone else in a conflict of interest, it means that even if you’re not violating any duties yourself, you’re encouraging other people to violate their duties.

And the companies’ bad behaviour, here, is going to cost them. It may well cost them future contracts, but it may cost them (and other companies that want to compete for CPS contracts) more than that. It’s been reported that they may be required to provide ethics training for their employees, and hire an independent auditor to make sure they’re complying with CPS ethics standards. Neither of those things is likely to be cheap. In an industry with narrow profit margins, such additional costs could well mean the difference between black ink and red.

But the most important “cost” in this case is, of course, the loss of confidence in the CPS and its purchasing procedures. That is always the risk with conflict of interest, namely that when conflicts are accepted and fostered, rather avoided or remedied, they erode confidence in the judgment not just of individuals, but of entire institutions.

Ethical Complexity and Simplification in Food Choices

As I pointed out a few days ago, shopping ethically is hard. Right on cue, a flurry of news items followed to drive that point home.

First, a story about how — say it ain’t so! — local food isn’t always ethical food. The story points out that some agricultural workers in southern Ontario (just a short drive from where I live) report suffering from a range of ailments that they attribute to the chemicals to which they are exposed. So, yes, there’s more than a single dimension to food ethics. If (or rather when) local is actually better, that’s got to be an “other things being equal” sort of judgment. Local might be better — so long as local farm workers aren’t being abused, and so long as growing food in your local climate doesn’t require massive water and fuel subsidies, etc.

Next, a Valentine’s-themed bit on how to buy ethical chocolate. The short version: apparently you’re supposed to look for local, organic chocolate that’s certified free of child-labour, sold in a shop that dutifully recycles and composts. Of course, such chocolate isn’t necessarily cheap. And if you’re spending that much on chocolate, then you might want to think what other things you’re scrimping on as a result, and who might be affected by that scrimping.

Finally, there was a story — really just a press release — noting that chocolate bar manufacturer Mars is set to ‘help’ consumers by narrowing their choices: the company is aiming to put a 250-calorie limit on all its bars by 2013. Interesting question: is this a matter of helping particular customers, by encouraging them not to over-indulge? Or is it rather a matter of specifically social responsibility, an attempt by a food giant to respond to (or at least to limit its contribution to) the social problem of obesity? And — speaking of value choices — should food companies aim first and foremost at pleasing their customers, or serving society as a whole?

Which Oil is the More Ethical Oil?

It’s a clever marketing strategy. But is there really such a thing as ethical oil?

In today’s National Post, the Fraser Institute‘s Mark Milke argues that there is, and that “the ethical oil tag is useful shorthand for why Canada’s oil is preferable to that extracted elsewhere.” But “preferable” is a pretty grand, global conclusion. It implies that, all told, Canada’s oil is better, ethically. And that may well be, but it’s certainly not obvious. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a patriotic Canadian, proud of my country and its accomplishments. But I’m also a critical thinker, and a critical thinker can’t accept unreflectively a conclusion that happens to coincide with his own biases. Indeed, the fact that Milke’s conclusion conforms so neatly to my own biases is a strong reason for me to look at his argument more closely.

His argument is basically that Canada’s oil is ethically preferable to the oil produced in other places, considering especially places with serious histories of violating human rights.

OK, so let’s try it out. Let’s look at a rough sketch of the perceived negative ethical implications of oil from the top 10 countries listed by oil production….

Russia — widespread political & economic corruption;
Saudi Arabia — oppressive regime; human rights abuses;
United States — capital punishment; crazy war on drugs; irresponsible financial institutions;
Iran — human rights violations; insane political leaders;
China — human rights violations;
Canada — environmental degradation; poor treatment of indigenous peoples;
Mexico — widespread corruption; ongoing drug war;
United Arab Emirates — undemocratic;
Brazil — crushing poverty; immense social inequality;
Kuwait — undemocratic; human trafficking and abuse of migrant workers.

Feel free to add your own potential points of criticism to the list. And, of course, you can add significant environmental concerns to the worries for all oil-producing nations. That goes with the turf.

Now we absolutely must not make the mistake of treating this like a checklist, or treating all of the ethical “bads” listed above as equally bad. They’re not. And the other problem with this list is that it presumes that the only alternatives are various countries’ oil. Presumably much of the criticism of tar-sand oil isn’t that it’s so environmentally-evil that it’s ethically worse than, say, Saudi oil. Rather, the criticism has to be that tar-sand oil is worse than renewable energy sources that we ought to be developing, like solar and wind and geothermal.

So while I think the “ethical oil” label is rather, well, crude, I think the people promoting that label are at least doing us the unintentional service of reminding us that it’s far from clear what counts as an ethical source of energy. (If you use slave labour to build a wind turbine, is that an ethical source of energy?) As my friend Andrew Crane points out there are many dimensions along which to evaluate the ethics of any product — including not just the intrinsic properties of the product but also things like the process of production and nation of origin. That certainly applies to oil. I just wish I could believe that the people pushing the “ethical oil” label for my country’s oil were doing it to advance the debate, rather than to score points in it.

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Update: Take a hew poll on this topic, here: Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?

Stem Cell Fraud

Stem cell science is pretty sexy. And as the saying goes, “sex sells.” And if something sells, someone is liable to make a buck off it, whether it’s right to do so or not.

See this opinion piece (in The Scientist) by Zubin Master and David B. Resnik: Reforming Stem Cell Tourism.

As with many new areas of technological advancements, stem cell research has received its fair share of hype. Though much of the excitement is warranted, and the potential of stem cells promising, many have used that hype for their own monetary gain. … Young and elderly patients have died from receiving illegitimate stem cell treatments; others have developed tumors following stem cell transplantations….

Master and Resnik point to the need for patient education, and to the limits of international guidelines, but their main focus is on the ethical responsibilities of scientists — including the responsibility not to cooperate in various indirect ways with unscrupulous colleagues. (It is very, very hard to do clinical science in a vacuum, and so isolating unscrupulous scientists may be one way to put them out of business.)

But it’s important to point out that this is as much a story of business ethics as it is of scientific ethics. The unscrupulous individuals preying upon the sick aren’t doing it for free. What these clinics are doing is committing fraud, and endangering their customers in the process.

Now there’s nothing ethically subtle about that. You don’t need a Ph.D. in philosophy to know that fraud is bad. But there’s another, subtler, issue here, namely an underlying theme about the general lack of scientific literacy on the part of consumers and the ability of business to use it to their advantage. Companies of all kinds can do a lot of good in the world by promoting scientific literacy, and by being scrupulously careful about having the facts straight when they present their products to consumers and tell them, “this works.”

Now of course, we’re never going to prevent such behaviour entirely. As long as there are desperate people in the world, there will be snake-oil salesmen eager to make a buck from their misery. But as Master and Resnik suggest, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

How Should Companies Memorialize 9/11?

The day has passed, but it’s a question that’s sure to arise again — just under a year from now, and the year after that, and so on.

What can, or should, businesses do with regard to a relatively recent tragic event like 9/11? The cultural significance of an event like 9/11 is hard for anyone to ignore, especially on the tenth anniversary of that fateful day. And companies thrive on raising their profiles, a feat that can most readily be accomplished by riding the coattails of cultural significance. But when the culturally-significant event in question is a tragic one, corporations need to tread carefully.

This general topic can be split into two more specific questions:
1) Can or should companies use references to an event like 9/11 in their advertising?
2) Can or should companies do something to memorialize such events?

The pure advertising question seems easy. Using references to 9/11 in ads is tacky, if not outright unethical. (For some examples, see this nice slideshow by Jim Edwards for Bnet: “10 Advertisers Exploiting the Sept. 11 Attacks to Push Their Brands”.) Profiting from other people’s pain and grief just isn’t a socially-constructive business strategy.

The problem of course is that it’s hard to separate questions 1 and 2. Naturally, any effort on the part of a company to memorialize an event is likely to be seen as an attempt by that company to raise its own profile.

But memorializing an event like 9/11 in some way seems unobjectionable, and perhaps even obligatory. The hard question is what form such memorializing should take. The best ways, perhaps, are the small-scale and personal ones. Giving employees time off work to attend memorial services, for example. The same principle applies to expressions of sentiment: small and local seems best. A simple sign on your front window that says “Never Forget 9/11″ seems to make the point best — better than, say, splashing that same slogan across millions of product packages — and is much less liable to engender suspicions that the expression of sentiment is self-serving.

As an final point, notice that this is precisely the kind of question for which the term “corporate citizenship” provides the right fulcrum. Some people try to use that term to cover all questions of corporate right-and-wrong , but that’s a mistake. Not all obligations or rights are rooted in a weighty concept like citizenship. But this one is. How we respond to national and international tragedies is clearly an issue of citizenship, in the full political sense of that word, the sense that implies a set of rights and responsibilities related to participation in public life. An alternative word like “sustainability,” which some people take to encompass all ethical questions, just doesn’t cut it here. How companies choose to respond to the anniversary of an event like 9/11 says a lot about how they see themselves as corporate citizens, as participating members of a still-grieving community.

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