In the Western world, we’ve built up resistance to the visual, aural and mental pollution of advertising. We doubt, we laugh, we turn off. The advertisers counter with brighter colors, louder noises, wilder images. We close down our senses.
Eastern Europeans had no chance to harden up before their ideological wall fell and multinational advertisers rolled over their borders. Almost overnight, intrusive ads sprouted everywhere. A tram line in Budapest was painted pink and dubbed the "Barbie Line." Barges began to chug back and forth on the Danube, smack in the middle of the most scenic views of the city, dragging chains of floating billboards.
If you aren’t toughened against that kind of hype, it can make you furious.
So activists in Budapest bicycle around every night spray-painting billboards. According to the InterPress Service, about 20 percent of the cigarette ads in the city are scrawled with the word "Cancer." Other ads are covered with graffiti saying "Don’t be fooled," or "All ads lie." McDonald’s posters are hit with a pre-printed, glued-on banner reading "Filth of the West."
The young people responsible for this desecration call their group Anti-Ad Action. They say that advertisements "subtly brainwash you" and "encourage consumerism and, as a consequence, pollution." Their sprayed-on or glued-on commentary includes an address, so volunteers can join them.
Last February in the Czech Republic, 6,628 schools received a colorful leaflet announcing a competition with the name: "School and Computer – the Basis of Life." The leaflet was from Procter & Gamble, which organized the competition in cooperation with Apple computers, under the patronage of the Ministry of Education.
For a school to enter, each student must collect at least 10 coupons from P&G products. The 20 schools collecting the most coupons per student would each receive five Apple computers.
Milan Caha, of the National Center for Environmental Education in Prague, calculates that to participate, every student would have to buy on average 900 Czech crowns (Kc) of P&G products. If all schools participated, P&G would gross at least 3 billion Kc, about 600 times the retail value of the prize computers.
A good, old-fashioned corporate scam, I thought, when I heard about it. But the National Center for Environmental Education, along with other environmental organizations, was less tolerant. It published an open letter to the Minister of Education. It is immoral to use the schools to promote products not related in any way to education, it said. It is even more immoral for the ministry to promote the idea of consumption as the way to success.
The Ministry of Education replied, after a long delay, to affirm its support of the competition. Procter & Gamble replied instantly. The company published a defense of its project and invited the environmentalists to its Prague office for a "discussion." In the meeting, Caha tells me, they were offered both carrots and sticks: "Couldn’t your organization use a small contribution?" and "You’d better get some good lawyers." A fax war followed. It continued, without producing any agreement, until the end of the school year.
Meanwhile, the National Center for Environmental Education approached the schools with an alternative competition, entitled "Less Consumption – Chance for Life." It suggested that teachers and students organize discussions about advertising, consumption, and environmental protection, and that they send their conclusions to the school management, parents, the Ministry of Education, and P&G, with copies to the National Center.
P&G never announced how many schools entered its competition, or who won. The National Center received letters from 62 schools.
Two teachers in Bezno reported: "We distributed materials about both competitions and let the students decide which competition to enter. Not one of our 176 students chose to participate in the competition promoting high consumption of the harmful products of P&G."
A sixth-grade class from Hradec Kralove said: "Our class decided not to participate in the P&G competition. We don’t like polluted water, sea, and air. We don’t like that the forest around our town is dying. We would like to contribute to saving the Earth."
A teacher from Postolprty wrote to P&G: "We are sorry for your underestimation of the work and attitudes of teachers. The P&G leaflet, which came to our school, went directly into the box for used paper. Do you really think we are ignorant of environmental education?"
It’s not easy to be a sophisticated modern consumer, but we’re sending our experts over there. They’ll learn.
Donella Meadows, co-author of The Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits, is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College and an IC contributing editor.