Saturday, March 03, 2007

Demand and Supply

A comment on my last post prompted this question: why should we expect the world (the world of manufacturers- advertisers, at any rate) to care about women's intellectual/sartorial/physical/financial needs, as long as they can induce us - through promises, false or...well, legal - to buy what they're selling?

In an ideal world, this question would have been different. In an ideal world, manufacturers of cosmetic products would not tell lies, and nobody would try to suppress research. But this is not an ideal world and profit is god.

In such a world, should the simple rules of demand and supply apply?

If there was, for instance, a huge demand for child sex workers, would it be acceptable to allow their supply? What if the children themselves agreed to be sold: maybe they're poor and hungry?

If there was a surge in the demand for, say, shark meat, and sharks were endangered, would it be acceptable to hunt them until they disappeared?

If all children want to learn, but not all have family resources, should we simply cater to those who can afford to pay?

If there's a famine, should only those who can pay, eat?

Demand and supply are not sacred, in my opinion. If manufacturers or suppliers or even buyers lack a conscience (for the lack of a better word... call it a moral compass, a set of ethics, a soul, whatever) we have to act in ways that lead to minimum damage for most people.

Some may argue that it is unfair to compare famines with women's magazines. I can only quote Steinem, again. The art of behaving ethically is to act as if everything you do, matters.

To come back to women's magazines and advertiser 'inserts':

Do advertisers have the right to dictate where their ads will be placed?
I'm not sure.
Do they have a right not to advertise in magazines that have fashion advice for non-supermodel-sized women?
Perhaps.
Does that mean that one has to look elsewhere for funding?
Yes.
Is it okay to expect that women will pay higher prices for 'niche' magazines with something other than nauseating articles about the charming benefits of brazilian waxes?
No.

Magazines (all media) are information. Are a source of knowledge, a shared cultural space and a reference point and a means of opinion formation and are - however lightly - looked up to as a source of truth.

Just like it is unethical to suppress news - no matter how unpalatable it may be to advertisers or readers/viewers - it is unethical to suppress a certain kind of reality. Even if it is something like the need for different sizes to suit different shapes. Or the fact that you age, get wrinkles and die. The constant suppression of myriad realities leads to distorted reality. It is not for nothing that anorexia needs psychological treatment. The victim no longer has any sense of truth about his/her own body. Large numbers of women no longer have any perspective on shape because they are force-fed a constant visual mush of super-skinny women.

Should we assume that all women who want an alternative will find it?
No.
I still have not found one. There was a time when I no longer found Femina and Cosmo amusing, and wanted other magazines - something that was about women, and not cars or sports or celebrities. I still can't find an alternative.

Am I willing to pay for an alternative? Yes.
Steinem brought out Ms magazine, for instance.
But do I have access to it? No.
If I order imported magazines, will I be able to afford them? No.

Forced into a situation where I must choose between the crap the advertisers want me to see or no magazine at all, I take the latter. Do I think it is right?
No.

As a consumer, I would much prefer it if advertisers simply had no control over editorial content. As a consumer, I expect this, actually, from non-fiction media.

The advertiser does have a right not to advertise at all, or to specify the size/length of the ad. But I am not convinced that the advertiser should have a right to decide what sort of article the ad appears next to.

Does this require that media and marketers re-think the way they do business, or that media reorganise its formats, and develop a common code or something?
Yes.

From a media perspective, I know this is very, very hard to do. But I also know that, often, we buckle not under pressure, but because of our fear of pressure. That we don't even put up a fight.
Is that a done thing?
In my opinion, No.

14 comments:

Falstaff said...

"Is it okay to expect that women will pay higher prices for 'niche' magazines with something other than nauseating articles about the charming benefits of brazilian waxes?
No."

Why not? If the magazine provides value to you, why shouldn't it charge you for that?

If magazines are "sources of information / knowledge" (FEmina?? Really?) and information should not be suppressed, then does that mean all magazines should be made available free? Asking a price for anything means some people won't be able to afford it. Does that mean all media pricing is censorship?

Look, I agree entirely that in an ideal world women's magazines wouldn't be such rubbish. My point is that the only way we're going to get that ideal world is if more women make the choice you're making - not buying a magazine at all instead of buying the crap that's out there. Intellectual speculation about what a different world could look like makes for interesting fiction, but serves no purpose. We can either sit around revelling in our victimisation by the Big Bad Capitalist System, or we can try to encourage others to act intelligently as consumers to make change happen through the system. If Steinem were saying we need to encourage more and more women to stop reading this crap and actively boycott magazines like Femina / Cosmo, I'd be rooting for her in support. Calling it censorship and shifting the responsibility to the very people who have the least incentive to do anything about it is a waste of everyone's time.

Oh, and yes, large numbers of women have no perspective on shape - but acknowledging that they don't and that they are truly conditioned by the system to want / enjoy magazines like Femina is the first step to beginning to solve that problem. Saying that it isn't what women really want (which is what your last post implied) is making the problem worse. Sure there will be always be minorities whose demands are unmet. But I find it hard to believe that the vast majority of women are actively looking for a better quality of magazine and no one's coming forward to profit from that.

Nabila Zehra Zaidi said...

Well, its true that women oriented magazines in India or even abroad, which may include Cosmopolitan, are pages full of rubbish. I, for one, find reading such magazines worthless, but wait! Are the pages on health care, reciepes, fashion, trauma guru columns, etc. not useful to women? For an 18 year old, yes it may not be useful (not like Seventeen attracts me too much either), but to women above 25 years it maybe. The newly weds, the lonely 45 year olds, whosoever!It is infact, a game of demand and supply. I want reciepes, I want to know how to ignite my sex life twenty years after marriage, I want to know what should I wear this season, bla bla bla, hence Femina gives it to me all and is the most widely read and liked magazine of the country.

Comparing a magazine's contents to child sex workers is not right, in my opinion, because here comes the battle of what is right and what is wrong. Women, at an increasing rate are becoming annorexic, know nothing right about their bodies - it is not the advertiser's fault , that is his job. He is not doing it with an immoral bent, but the magazines are definitely printing articles right beside such ads on annorexia, so as to educate women on what is right. In short, here, neither is the capitalistic advertiser immoral nor the magazines just too right or rubbish, its simply the women, who make the decisions, who make the judgements. I am one of them and I do the same - I, like Annie, choose not to buy those magazines unless there is something worth reading, according to me!

Tarun Chandel said...

Hi

I am Tarun here, I am planning a Blogcamp in India (Pune), if possible try to make it to it, if not then do try to participate through internet, using Youtube, Slideshare etc.

I have found few other guys who are also very enthusiastic about having a Blogcamp. We are already in rocess of contacting some good bloggers like you and others on Blogosphere.

The venue will be SCIT Pune Symbiosis Center for IT). We are already talking to a few people to sponsor food, tshirts and goodies. But all these things are secondary. Success of a Blogcamp is dependent upon it's participants and that is where we are focusing right now.

Do share you thoughts on it.

You can visit our wiki (http://barcamp.org/BlogCampPune).
We also have our blog ( www.blogcamppune.blogspot.com)

Regards,
Tarun Chandel
http://tarunchandel.blogspot.com

PS: I know this is not the right place to put this invitation, but I was not able to find your email id.

Anuja Byotra said...

Spot On!

I am tired of hearing the same old lie of we're getting what we get because that is what we want. Truth is that we get, appallingly pathetic news channels for instance, because that's what the advertiser wants and because it costs little to the channel - and has nothing to do with what I wish to see! Unfortunately, there is increasingly lesser choice for those who want substance.

annie said...

falstaff:

1] Let's not be narrow about censorship. To me, censorship implies removing information/views/ art/etc by exerting pressure - through legal, physical, economic, religious means - upon a person/group, by other persons/groups who have control over the said means. To me, using money to achieve this is no better than a government banning a book. Or, as had happened in our country, DD refusing to screen award-winning (controversial) films, on the grounds that they aren't good enough.

2] Intellectual speculation... makes for more than fiction. It makes for philosophy, politics, ideas, war. Surely, you're aware.

3] The phrases 'revelling in our victimisation' and 'Big Bad Capitalist System' are uncalled for, since I usually seek solutions to whatever feels like victimization, but I do have the right to think aloud, in the process. And you may go over each and every post on this blog, if you please, but I doubt you will find the words 'capitalist' and 'bad' used in the same breath. I don't like the (mis)use of certain strategies by big organisations, but that's about all.

4] Calling censorship, censorship, is calling a spade a spade. Which is never a waste of time.

5] About your last sentence ; there are people who argue that the poor, hungry masses want to go on being hungry, because, why else would they go on with it? Not an argument I'm impressed with.

Nabila:
You're right to the extent that some of the mags do have some articles of value. financial advice, for instance. tax-related stuff. but what you may not know is that a lot of articles (about sex, about food, about health) work in tandem to impress even more deeply upon your psyche, the same old crappy ideas about body, beauty etc. A piece on 'health' or 'sports' will have photos of models. Have you seen the bodies of women weight-lifters? Or swimmers or athletes? I still remember one piece on 'balanced' diet that recommended warm lime (without sugar) juice, a cup of tea and a veggie juice in the morning. That's it. And you're not supposed to feel hungry after that. Not until noon. And then you drink some more juice... maybe that's balanced. maybe it won't kill you. I don't know... I like cheese and omlette.

About advertisers 'just doing their job' ... Advertisers are people too and have some responsibilities as citizens and professionals. Many advertisers will distance themselves from a model who gets into serious trouble related to food disorders, narcotics etc. However, most of them will do this only after the issue has been dragged into the public eye. They don't care how much a model suffers, as long as nobody knows (s)he's anorexic.

In fact, to take this away from women's mags', do read about the tobacco industry and a CBS investigation. Or watch The Insider, if you'd rather see it on film. There's more to a product and media than 'just doing our job', baby.

Tarun:
Thanks, but I doubt I can make it.

Anuja:
sigh! maybe we'll just have to make our own. eh?

Sudha said...

Oh, and yes, large numbers of women have no perspective on shape - but acknowledging that they don't and that they are truly conditioned by the system to want / enjoy magazines like Femina is the first step to beginning to solve that problem.

Magazines are marketing this distorted reality, that makes it that much harder for women to realize that they are infact being conditioned by the system. How does someone who sees stick thin figures in magazines month after month know that stick thin is not 'natural'? Annie or anyone talking about these issues have enough knowledge/exposure/experience to know that these are issues. Wat about a 15-yr-old who looks at 'those women and wants to be like them'?

The first step can be brought about by some of the same magazines taking a stand and not letting the advertisements dictate them. well, u might ask wat motivation wud they have to do something like that? because they have a responsibility too. did'nt the US govt. pass laws to reduce transfats from menus of all fast food chains?

Annie: I wud agree with Nabila in that femina/cosmo r not 'all' crap. but watever useful content is laced with images from the ads, or images from the mag itself, and sadly a picture speaks a 1000 words.

Falstaff said...

Annie: So unless a media corporation provides coverage of all possible news it's practising censorship? By your definition of censorship all media is censorship because no one does (or can) report every possible news story that could conceivably be written. That's not a definition of censorship I personally find particularly useful. Nor am I convinced that that form of censorship is a bad thing. I wouldn't want to live in a world where all products / services were undifferentiated because economic power was not a valid way of influencing what got offered to me.

I agree that you usually seek solutions to problems you talk about, which is why it's disappointing to see you taking a point of view that amounts to little more than armchair dreaming about what a perfect (though entirely unsustainable) world where corporations worked for 'social good' (whatever that means) rather than profit would look like. As I've said repeatedly, I agree entirely that gender stereotypes in media need to be changed, I just think it's time we stopped playing the broken record of "it's the corporations, it's the corporations" and started talking about what we can actually do about it. Your post suggests, and at least some of your commenters seem to think, that the way change will happen is when corporations forsake their responsibility to shareholders and start making social change happen without any economic incentive to do so. Good luck with that, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

As for 'capitalist' and 'bad' - it's implied in every line of your post. You believe that corporations should not use the power money gives them to make advertising decisions that maximise their profit. More generally, you seem to believe that economic power is not a valid way of influencing production decisions. You believe that goods / services should be made available to people even if they don't have the ability to pay for them. You believe that pricing should be linked to social / ethical norms rather than to the actual value offered by the good / service to the consumer. You believe that consumers can be absolved of their responsibility to make intelligent choices, and that it's corporations that must protect the people from their own choices by offering them goods / information that are 'good' for them. If that's not being anti-capitalism, I don't know what is.

Finally, I fail to see any relevance to the 'people going hungry because they can't afford food' point. What has that got to do with this? If you were arguing that no on publishes women's magazines because women can't pay for them, that would be one thing. But that's clearly not true, since women's magazines sell. My point is simply that if, as you claim, a majority of these women want better content, all they have to do is stop buying the magazines they're currently buying, and magazines will be forced to include relevant content. Give me one good reason why that isn't happening or can't be made to happen, if everything you say is true.

Sudha: a) I agree that most women don't see that they're being manipulated into seeing a particular body image as 'natural'. Notice, though, that that's directly at odds with what Annie's claiming - she claims that women don't actually want these products / articles but are being forced to put up with them because of "censorship" by corporations.

b) Having said that, I think expecting the very corporations that are currently championing these stereotypes to turn around and start deconstructing them, at the cost of their own profitability and out of the pure goodness of their hearts is ridiculously naive. (I don't even agree that they have a responsibility to make social change happen by second guessing revealed consumer choices, but let that go). Having identified the problem, we can either have seminar discussions where we shake our heads and say, it's all corporate censorship, or we can actively encourage women to stop buying magazines that offer them content / advertising that amplifies tired stereotypes (even if that means sacrificing what little is of interest in these magazines - potentially getting it from other sources). Which do you think is more likely to be effective?

Jai_Choorakkot said...

Its easy to be unimpressed with:

"the poor, hungry masses want to go on being hungry, because, why else would they go on with it? "

but that was not quite parallel to:

"the vast majority of women are actively looking for a better quality of magazine and no one's coming forward to profit from that"

I hope you can rethink your analogies and avoid unnecessarily stark ones because they can unnecessarily weaken your argument.

Agree more with you than with Falstaff BTW.

Best regards,
Jai_Choorakkot

annie said...

Jai:
not a parallel, I'll admit. a stark analogy, like hyperbolic figures of speech, are sometimes used to emphasize a point. but since you seem to buy my argument anyway, i will abandon it for now.

Falstaff:
You're right. Seminar discussions on the subject are a waste of time. I have a feeling this discussion isn't serving much purpose either. Perhaps, we just have vastly divergent world-views. Perhaps, we need to debate with ourselves first - about words like 'media', 'corruption', 'censorship', 'monopoly', 'law', 'rights', 'market' etc - before we debate with each other.
All I can say is, if expecting people to behave like resonsible, truthful adults is naive... I guess I'm just going to stay naive.

Falstaff said...

sure. And while you're thinking about all those terms (though I'm not sure how 'monopoly' enters into it - there aren't any involved here), you may want to also think about what acting responsibly means when you're the manager of a corporation and your primary responsibility is to your shareholders. How 'responsible' would it be for a manager to start throwing away good advertising money in order to support his / her pet cause at the cost of lost profits to the people who invested in the company expecting to make a profit.

Oh, and you're willing to be naive are you? Good for you. And then you wonder why I think you're not solution oriented.

Crazyfinger said...

Though I swore off to resist the temptation to post long comments, especially on this topic on which earlier I sort of went "crazy," I'd like to pitch in and take sides. I see much prudence and sense in Annie's position philosophically, but I am afraid she's speaking from a position of not being familiar with the mechanics of how consumer behavior impacts the conduct of a corporation, because sometimes these mechanics are counterintuitive. I absolutely do not mean that in any patronizing way. I think that may be the reason why someone reading this post may think of it as a strawman debate about "demand/supply" on one side and "ethics," on the other.

First, as a general point, good business leaders will themselves agree wholeheartedly that good ethics is an integral part of being a good corporation. So, even as a matter of principle - or, to put it in a slightly provocative terminology, even as a matter of ideology - "demand/supply" and "ethics" are not on either side of the line called shareholder value. It will take a big old comment thread to drive this point home, but let's just leave it at that for now.

Believe it or not, most of what goes on in corporations that people think as bad ethics, is really simply a poor understanding of their own markets and a poor execution of the business itself. Any smart business person will look at your statement: "the need for different sizes to suit different shapes," and see nothing but an opportunity to make more money (by tailoring different sized products for different shapes). If this business person is not doing that, then it is simply a matter of him/her not being a slick one. I don't think ethics comes into picture here.

In fact Annie, that same smart business person would likely say to you that you are a smart business person yourself for recognizing that key insight (never mind how common sensical it really is) to a successful enterprise.

In simple terms, to ascertain what access we consumers have today for what products in the market, it is a matter of how we as a consumer answer these two questions,

i) "Miss Consumer, yesterday did you get what you were willing to pay for," and
ii) "Are you willing to pay the same today, for the same product?"

An average Indian consumer is prone to behave in a manner consistent with "yes," to the above two questions. That is a problem. As a consumer, the corporation will have little incentive to make any change to the offering, because the consumer hasn't exercised her/his choice (say, "NO" for crying out loud!)

In fact I cannot think of any other import in modern life that we citizens have as consumers, that is more tangible and more change-affecting, than the power to say "no." An appalling failure of all of us as people is that we do not exercise this power. Neither in the market place, nor in elections, nor in thumping the table at the crippled legal system...nowhere do we do that in a way that makes the difference. Actually I take that back, the "we" should refer only to the mandarin types. The good folks in villages actually do make that point every day, it's just that there are no ears listening.

One of these days I will learn to type a short comment, when I have time.

Regards,
Crazyfinger

Jai_Choorakkot said...

Annie,

I dont know if there is any history there, but the hyperbole had you accrediting or implying statements to F that he did not make, about poor ppl opting to go hungry. his actual statement was way milder.

That is not good technique. Again, there may be some context I am missing.

sudha,

"How does someone who sees stick thin figures in magazines month after month know that stick thin is not 'natural'?"

Maybe every time she sees just about everyone around her, real ppl, who are not stick thin, having fun and going abt their lives?

I am a guy from a different social class and probably am not really getting this, but the pictures you & annie portray of fretting girls obsessing over some mag articles are a little scary.

regards,
Jai

zen babu said...

Annie,

Each one of your posts about body image issues/ anorexia/ cosmetic industry leaves me more and more incredulous. You call the equation between the perils of upper middle class girls who do not have an alternative to Cosmopolitan and the 'poor starving masses' a 'stark analogy'. Is it possible that you do not understand the difference between 'choice' and 'circumstance'?

The 'hungry masses' are faced with a circumstance, which is the result of being born to a family of a certain economic class. Women who are forced to marry at 15 are faced with a circumstance, which is the result of being born in a particular gender and in a family/scoiety that believes in certain ideals. On the other hand, women who buy Cosmopolitan are exercising a choice. They have the option of not buying cosmopolitan and instead reading those articles that appear in newspapers which warn about the perils of low body mass index. They also have the option of turning back to the lowly 10th standard science textbook which gives methods of calculating ideal dialy food requirements, ideal body weights etc. There's a reason they don't exercise that option and it's called 'low IQ'. (I mean the individual, not the gender, please don't try to brand me MCP).

I have numerous female aquaintances, friends, even best friends. Not one of them adheres to any Cosmopolitan-induced unhealthy stereotypes. I also know a few who do. The differentiating factor is invariably IQ and self-esteem. Some women(the keyword is some) develop body image issues - the fault lies stictly with them. Some men also start believing that racing bikes worth 10 lakhs at 150 kmph is the most normal thing on earth because John Abraham does it in some movie. The reason is again low IQ and the fault again lies with them - not with the film industry/automotive industry that is trying to create 'unhealthy stereotypes' or the automobile industry that is ostensibly indulging in 'censorship' by ensuring that the normal priced bikes driven at normal speeds are being 'censored' out of movies by the means of financial muscle.

Also, how many women/girls in India read any of these magazines? What percentage can even afford to read them? Is it not miniscule compared those who don't? More importantly, a person who can pay 50 bucks to buy a glossy mag can also pay 25 to buy 'Resonance' instead and read the latest on various scientific issues, including health. The fact that she(he) doesn't says more about the individual than about the glamour industry. I find the Fair & Lovely ads ridiculous and an offence to bad taste, I find the people (yes people, there are enough men who do that, trust me) motivated to buy the cream even more ridiclous. Why should you or Gloria Steinem or anyone for that matter try and shift the blame from the weakness of the individual to some grand conspiracy by the glamour world.

Also, 'the politics of channeling'??!! Seriously??!!

Falstaff,

Why do you even try to bring in the angle of 'solutions' and 'levergaing of economic power' into these discussions? It gives her the chance of shifting goal-posts. Even sticking to 'naive intellectual stimulation', the views she or Gloria Steinem endorse are plain illogical.

Agree with everything you have to say, btw.

Jai_Choorakkot said...

I dont read and dont know anybody that reads Cosmo, so I'm out of my league here.

1. But when ad sponsors start dictating placement as "next to happy story" "nr. yuppy trendy slim & glow pic/ story" etc. they are getting into editorial and content control, and that is a problem.

2. Also not everything is justifiable on the grounds that it is being done to benefit the shareholders.

It is possible (I believe) for powerful corporate lobbies to get laws sanctioned that

- reduce or peg wages of low-skilled labour to the lowest possible level

- reduce/ waive environmental and safety criteria.

These actions benefit the shareholders and are narrowly speaking, legal (you fixed those laws to suit you anyways).

They do not reflect ethical or social responsibility.

3. I would agree with Falstaff's position if the system was OK and not corruptible and we had an enlightened and active public participation in policy making (we do have one of the components, by and large the media is free and alert).

regards,
Jai

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