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Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert: Taking on commercialism at every juncture

Breakfast cereals equivalent in nutritional value to Twinkies are heavily marketed to children using cartoon mascots and online “advergames.” Schools display advertisements for everything from fast food to the U.S. Army on every available surface, from lockers to flat-screen televisions in cafeterias to report cards. Corporations hire student “brand ambassadors” on college campuses to subtly push their product on classmates and friends. Public art galleries, subway stops, and roadways are named for the highest corporate bidder. Historic bridges and parks are draped with advertisements. Infant formula makers market their products in doctors’ offices and hospitals.Photo by Christopher Chan, Flickr

These examples are all evidence of the rapidly growing space that commercial culture has come to occupy within our society. As large a space as they may already inhabit in our lives, corporations are seeking still more facets of our society that can be put up “for sale,” never mind the higher values that get trampled in the process – values like family, community, environmental integrity, and democracy. That’s why Commercial Alert, a project of Public Citizen, has no shortage of work to do.

Ralph Nader and Gary Ruskin founded Commercial Alert in 1998, seeking to keep commercial culture within its proper sphere. Since then, Commercial Alert has fought to lay down boundaries that preserve crucial spaces in our culture as commercial-free. Commercial Alert has stood up for children’s rights to be free of commercialism in schools, parks, libraries, and other public spaces. We’ve demanded that government be a vehicle for democracy, not commercial advertising, fighting back against plans to advertise on government vehicles, history-laden bridges and buildings, and in cultural institutions. We’ve decried the number one public health disaster of our times – marketing-related diseases, including obesity, smoking-related illnesses, diabetes, and many more.

Despite successes along the way, the fight is far from over. As those intent on putting everything and everyone up for sale wage their war on our culture, Commercial Alert continues to resist the spread of commercial culture – now as an important part of Public Citizen. We’re confident that supporters of Public Citizen will find that Commercial Alert’s upcoming campaigns address crucial issues that are important to them – issues that fit well with Public Citizen’s historic concerns about unchecked corporate power and consumer protection. And supporters of Commercial Alert who have been eagerly awaiting our return to action after a brief hiatus will be excited to see the powerful connections between Public Citizen’s work and Commercial Alert’s goals, connections that will enable us to combat excessive commercial culture even more effectively.Citizens around the country are expressing outrage at the disproportionate power corporations wield. As most of us in the 99 percent struggle to make ends meet, we watch as corporate executives continue to line their pockets with cash, while shortchanging average citizens. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has held that corporations are entitled to the same First Amendment freedoms of speech protections as real, live, breathing human beings.

The spread of commercial culture into some of our most valued public spaces – from educational institutions to health care facilities – is a stark example of the damaging effects of the unchecked power that corporations have been all too happy to wield. Do corporations have a “right” to infiltrate your kids’ classrooms? Should corporations be free to market unhealthy and dangerous products as they wish to the most vulnerable among us – or to any of us, for that matter? Should we permit corporations to turn our every waking moment into one long advertisement, often using deceptive means to catch us unawares? We don’t think so.

Public Citizen’s Democracy is For People campaign is building momentum in its fight for a constitutional amendment to overturn the disastrous Citizens United decision that granted corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. As more and more citizens speak out against this outrage, they are also in a position to question the virtually unfettered rights corporations claim to advertise. We need to stop commercial interests from overrunning not only our democracy, but our culture.

So how is Commercial Alert fighting back against commercialism? Like Public Citizen, Commercial Alert has its hands in a wide variety of issues. Here’s a sample of what’s on the horizon:

– School Commercialism: We think everyone should have the right to occupy commercial-free spaces, but if any one place deserves special protection, its schools. Schools are supposed to help kids develop their critical thinking skills, foster intellectual curiosity, provide a space for open debate and discussion, and promote civic values. In stark contrast, as kids develop their values and identities, marketers intentionally and unintentionally communicate and inculcate materialistic, superficial values that are most likely to bolster their bottom line. To fight the spread of market values in public schools, we are raising public pressure on school board officials, turning up the heat on corporations that target kids by advertising in schools, and exposing companies that profit off of school commercialism by acting as “middlemen.” We’ve just released a new report on this issue, and there will be petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and corporate campaigns, too.

– Infant formula marketing: Infant formula makers, the majority of which are giant pharmaceutical companies, know that the best way to reach new mothers is to recruit healthcare providers to market and endorse their products. Through these means, marketers are able to undermine the clear facts: breastfeeding is best for babies. The slew of evidence on the health benefits of breastfeeding should be all the information healthcare providers need to banish formula marketers from their offices. But, perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that big bucks and powerful corporate interests combine to push science into the shadows. Women should be free to choose to breastfeed – if they want to, and are able – without being confronted with the misinformation proffered by the formula industry. To fight these destructive forces, Commercial Alert is planning to challenge hospital administrators to take a close look at the ethics of giving out infant formula samples to new moms – a key marketing mechanism for the formula makers. Watch for a multipronged effort to target both healthcare providers and formula makers, with possible legislative approaches to this problem on the horizon.

– And much more: We’re planning to take on deceptive product placement schemes, financial product marketing, direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising, the sale of naming rights to public spaces, online marketing, alcohol marketing, and many other issues.

There is a lot to be done. If the ubiquity of advertising has long bothered you, if you’re committed to combating widespread corporate power, if you don’t want to see this generation of children become the next generation of “super-consumers,” if you think marketing poses a serious threat to our physical and mental health, or if you believe we need a vibrant and well-protected noncommercial culture: We need your help! Stay tuned for opportunities to join Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert project in this important struggle.

Elizabeth Ben-Ishai is a senior researcher at Public Citizen and the campaign coordinator for Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert.