Don't Buy the B.S.

Iraqis are not the only folks these days being served B.S. disguised as steak. In fact I have some real news for the Iraqis - you folks ain't seen nothin' yet! Just wait until things settle down there enough for the Madison Ave. crowd to set up shop.

If Iraqis want a preview of the kind of dis-/mis-information they will get should they ever fully join the Western world, just come on over to my place and watch a couple of evenings of American network and cable TV.

Where to begin? How about we start with the Saddam Husseins of corporate America -- Big Tobacco. Spare me the tales of Saddam's brutality. Big Tobacco is killing more folks every day than Saddam killed during his entire twisted career. Nevertheless, no tobacco industry executives are on trial. Their stocks are still traded on the exchanges and doing quite well, thank you.

But wait, what's this? Tons of anti-smoking are suddenly appearing nightly on my TV. They show clean-cut, preppy parents cavorting with playful towheaded children. These Norman Rockwell families appear on my screen filtered in soft, gauzy light. A sincere, fatherly voiceover advises us that "Anytime is a good time to warn our children about the dangers of smoking."

At the end of the ad is a text tag telling us that if we want more anti-smoking tips we should go to the Philip Morris website, where we can also learn about the superior taste and smoothness of their cigarettes.

My two sons, now in their 20s, have left home. But apparently no one told the Marlboro Man because almost weekly I get the most amazing things addressed to my boys in the mail. These packages contain the strangest combination of the delightful and deadly. Inside one was a beautifully done cowboy cookbook, featuring coupons for dirt-cheap smokes. (Everyone knows real cowboys want a smoke after a hearty meal of beans and rice. Are YOU a real cowboy?)

Often, as I open these Marlboro packages in the evening I notice one of the same company's anti-smoking ads droning away on my TV. Then my head explodes.

What's that all about?

Well, have you been keeping track of the Bush administration's handling of the Justice Department's civil suit begun during the Clinton years against Big Tobacco? If not, it's no surprise you're a bit confused.

"The government presented a strong case regarding the industry's liability. However, in closing arguments on June 7, 2005, the government significantly reduced one of its most important remedies....The government's expert witness on smoking cessation recommended requiring the industry to pay for a 25-year, $130 billion program to help smokers quit. But the government called for only a five-year, $10 billion program. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other public health groups criticized this proposal as inadequate, and several newspapers reported that political appointees at the Justice Department ordered the legal team to reduce this proposed remedy." (Full report here).
Big Tobacco, working hand-in-hand with compassionate conservatives in the Bush administration, is on the cusp of saving itself $120 billion. Not only that but, if the deal goes through, the industry will not be forced to spend a ton of money convincing people to reject its demonstrably dangerous product.

But -- and pay attention now, because this is the point -- under the Bush DOJ deal Big Tobacco would be forced to spend only $10 billion on anti-smoking campaigns but they promise to do more, "voluntarily."

And that's why you are being bombarded with tobacco-company sponsored anti-smoking ads. Even as you read this, attorneys for anti-smoking groups are in court trying to prevent the Bush administration from giving Big Tobacco such a sweet deal. That's why these companies are throwing all those public service ads at us -- to prove they really, really, really do get it.

Big Tobacco isn't the only company messing with reality. The anti-smoking ads are usually sandwiched between a couple of Big Pharma ads featuring miracle drugs fewer and fewer of us can afford. My wife is a practicing medical professional so I know a bit about things that can kill me. But I had no idea how bad it was until I started watching these drug company ads. They've convinced me that, from bowels to brain, I'm a ticking time bomb.

But the pharmaceutical industry ads offer hope. First they tell us what's going around out there that can cripple or kill us; then comes the good news -- they have the cure! All you have to do is demand that your doctor prescribes it for you. Never mind that your doc has not diagnosed you with any such condition. Trust us, they imply, if you don't have it now, you'll get it if you don't take this drug. (My wife tells me she sees patients everyday who arrive in the exam room, list in hand, of the drugs they want because they saw them on TV. And, they get downright pissy if she refuses to prescribe them.)

Ever since the flap over the administration's so-called Medicare Drug Benefit, drug companies have added this tagline to their ads: "If you can't afford this medication, contact us and we may be able to help you."

Ah yes, a little corporate charity for poor old granny. It would be really bad PR if grandpa croaked in the lobby of his rest home clutching a note explaining that he could not afford his pills. With that little tag, drug companies can now retort, "Well, why didn't grandpa call us? We would have been happy to provide his pills free of charge."

Like Big Tobacco, Big Pharma wants us to believe they really do give a damn. And they do. They give a damn about keeping things exactly the way they are. Times have never been better for them. People can choose whether to smoke or not, but they have little choice when it comes to their meds. You pay the price demanded or you go without.

And that's how Big Pharma wants to keep it. Which is why the industry went on Red Alert when the administration started down the road to creating a Medicare drug benefit. Medicare is the industry's biggest customer, and gets bigger by the day. If the new law allowed Medicare to use its enormous buying power to negotiate volume price reductions that would represent the first real crack in Big Pharma's medicine monopoly. So they got busy writing checks to politicians. And it worked; they won a specific rule in the new law actually prohibiting Medicare from negotiating lower drug prices.

So much for the "magic of the marketplace," Republicans like to tout. Instead we get the John Gotti version of free enterprise -- pay up or die.

Big Tobacco and Big Pharma are not alone in showering us in the glow of video Orwellianism. Big Energy is at it too. Like the tobacco companies they are sincerely begging us to use less of their product. "Please conserve energy," their new ads implore. "We must join hands in a community of responsibility and conservation," they suggest, with images of hands clasping in communion at the alter of conservation.

Big Energy wants you to understand that it's not their fault energy prices are so high or that there's any connection between that and their soaring profits. No. They are victims of circumstances beyond their control. If anyone is to blame, it's the public. We didn't conserve! We bought big SUVs! And it's also our fault for insisting on heating our homes to levels that allow us to take our coats off.

Finally there's our president, a veritable cornucopia of bullshit. He's blathering away on my TV as I write this, touting the progress the Iraqi economy has made. Well duh! Shower $6 billion a month into the American economy every month for three years and we'd be better off, too. That's not exactly rocket science, and it's hardly something to brag about. Any fool with a bottomless checkbook could do the same.

I don't know about you, but I am a lot less worried about the propaganda being fed the Iraqis by the US military than I am about the rising tide of corporate and government bull we obediently consume every night on TV.

Mom, Dad, remember: anytime is a good time to warn your children against the dangers of believing what they see or hear on television. Teach them to just say no to BS. (And while you're at it, remind yourself too.)

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