The Struggle to Define Social Reality: Market vs. Commons

After years of being pummeled with the facts about America’s obesity crisis, the junk food industry is finally starting to show some bruises. It’s beginning to acknowledge, indirectly, that its marketing practices just might be related to the prevalence of fat, unhealthy children. While the industry still has the upper hand in Congress, the FTC and some state legislatures, it is clearly losing in the court of public opinion. People see the cynical marketing abuses of McDonald’s, Pepsico, Kraft and Nabisco and understandably think of Big Tobacco.

As the fantasy marketing universe contrived by junk food makers begins to collapse (you mean cholesterol and sodium aren’t sexy and cool?), the obesity lobby is racing to develop a fallback narrative about why so many Americans are fat. Today the American Beverage Association checked in with a splashy PR campaign filled with disingenuous, high-minded statements of public concern about the obesity epidemic. It’s all smoke-and-mirrors, of course, designed to re-position the industry as a long-time advocate of healthy lifestyles (“For years, the beverage industry has worked to reduce obesity and promote overall wellness.”).

Look closely, because this is one of those rare moments in which the power to define social reality is visibly shifting from the market to the commons. People’s real needs are supplanting marketing imperatives. Realizing that its hardline resistance is futile, the industry has now moved to a defensive crouch in an attempt to neutralize a growing cultural consensus about the causes of obesity.

The junk food industry has long realized that the most effective way to boost market share is to own and control the social environment in which consumer transactions take place. That’s why it spends tens of billions of dollars a year to make its products ubiquitous, and to cast super-sized sugar consumption as the height of youthful excitement and fun. That’s known as the free market. Ingeniously, the industry changes social norms through marketing, and then blames individual consumers when they make unhealthy food choices.

Its campaign to maximize growth through cultural engineering has required the suppression of some troubling realities, however. Namely, millions of kids get very fat. Sugar and sodium aggravate diabetes and heart disease. Learning and general health suffer.

The junk food industry has worked hard to prevent any official government or public health recognition of these facts, as Gary Ruskin and Juliet Schor document in their recent cover story for The Nation. The industry’s gift to the American Diabetes Association persuaded the Association’s top medical official to assert that sugar has nothing to do with diabetes. The industry has partnered with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness to make itself look buff. Industry lobbyists contributed generously to the Bush/Cheney campaign.

Should it be surprising that the Federal Trade Commission’s July 2005 hearings on childhood obesity and food marketing concluded “no problem” – and the Department of Agriculture has refused to enforce its own rules forbidding mealtime sales of junk food in school cafeterias.

In effect, the market and the commons are engaged in an epic struggle to define whose version of social reality will prevail. Like Big Tobacco, junk-food sellers act as if they can create their own impregnable social reality, and that scientific facts and widely held values can be ignored.

It reminds me of the White House official who scoffed about the “reality-based community” to journalist Ron Suskind in a now-famous New York Times Magazine article in October 2004. The people of the reality-based community, said this official, “believe that solutions emerge from [the] judicious study of discernible reality.” By contrast, he said of the Bush-led U.S. Government, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

It is the conceit of most large multinationals, including those peddling junk food, that they are “history’s actors” and that the consuming public is as malleable and inert as putty. Government policy can be “fixed,” public opinion can be manipulated. A “new history” of industry concern for healthy lifestyles can be retroactively contrived.

What we are seeing in the junk-food wars is the forceful assertion of the commons in the face of pernicious market values. The most powerful and credible moral actors are not soda and candy makers. They are parents, public health experts and citizen groups. This saga will take years more to play out, but it’s already clear whose values are dominant and who are really “history’s actors.”