Thursday, May 31, 2012

In Defense of Humour


“A joke is a very serious thing.”
Winston Churchill

I come not to defend racism but in defense of humour. I fear that people, particularly in America today, are finding it harder and harder to make a distinction between laughing at ourselves and feeling offended; and there is a difference.

Firstly, I firmly believe that comedy should have no boundaries or restrictions, because it is meant to entertain, lighten our worldly burdens and be nothing more than a laughing matter. The only caveat is that the comedian dishing it out does so equally, and does not target a single racial stereotype. Also, I strongly suspect that there are not too many bitter, malicious, mean-spirited bigots who decide to pursue a career in comedy.

Let’s spend a minute discussing the elephant in the room – stereotypes. Frankly, I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with me when I say that ALL cultural stereotypes are rooted in some reality and none are pure figments of our imagination. So the issue, to my mind, is not so much that someone is making fun at my expense using a racial stereotype, but whether or not the intent behind it is malicious, or if it is coming from a light hearted place. Think about it. There is a fundamental difference here, and a hugely important distinction that every person needs to make. It is imperative we all make this distinction. It is a distinction each of us, in our ever-shrinking global village, needs to make in order to progress and thrive. This is not about all of us hugging trees and getting along. It is simply about having a thicker skin when we require it.

The easiest way to explain the difference is to imagine Dave Chappelle (a famous American comic) putting on the Klu Klux Klan’s white robes and hood to tell off colour black jokes versus an actual Klansman telling the same jokes. Or Ashton Kutcher making fun of gay people (or Jews), versus Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doing it. There is a fundamental difference. One comes from a place of genuine hatred, bigotry and anger, while the other is in jest, and therefore should be considered par for the course and fair game since it is not intended to malign or incite hatred.
Consider the idea that if you cannot laugh at yourself, then you are the one who is insecure or clearly not comfortable in your own skin. Period. 

Ashton Kutcher recently did an advertisement for Pop chips where he played various different character stereotypes ranging from a American redneck to a gay German (who is clearly modeled on Karl Lagerfeld). One of his characters was a Bollywood producer named Raj, for which he put on makeup to make himself look brown, as us Indian’s tend to be (frankly, most being even darker than brown). What offended me about this whole thing was not Ashton Kutcher putting on brown face makeup but the fact that some self-aggrandizer called Anil Dash decided it was offensive to me, and my fellow countrymen; all one billion two hundred thousand of them.
A still of Mr. Kutcher as Raj, from the Popchips advertisement, which has since been removed by the company.
Firstly, Mr. Dash was born and grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (not Hariana, Punjab) which would make him about as Indian as Bobby Jindal. It matters less to me where he or anyone else was born, but much more with what shaped and influenced him; the culture and surroundings he imbibed. Growing up in America shaped his outlook and sensibilities in a vastly different way than it would have growing up in India. The reality is that American kids born to first generation Indian parents are often pushed and pulled between the realities of growing up in America, while being imprisoned by an alien Indian culture, and way of thinking that they know nothing off, at home. This is driven by their Indian parent's misplaced and misguided desire to stay in touch with their Indian roots - one that is totally alien to their children. These kids are not Indian in any manner or form, because India never had the opportunity to shape their first steps, their upbringing, their schooling or their adult outlook. America did. It is that simple. So how can a man who has never lived in India speak for more than one billion of us? Not one Indian I know felt in the least bit offended by Mr. Kutcher’s portrayal, in fact they found it hilarious and shared it with their friends on Facebook.

Secondly, after reading Mr. Dash’s blog post titled How To Fix Popchips' Racist Ad Campaign", I had the impression that it was less about taking offense than about seizing an opportunity for self-promotion through controversy. Mr. Dash comes across as someone who is uncomfortable in his own skin. I sensed he was more offended by the fact that Mr. Kutcher, a mere actor, has been far more successful in the same start-up business, presumably because of his celebrity, and possibly the colour of his skin. This, I suspect, is what offended Mr. Dash about this rather funny commercial. I don’t know Mr. Dash but reading his blog post and especially some of his responses to comments, he comes across as self-involved, and much less a defender of the helpless and downtrodden. At one point he responds to a reader comment by saying: “Believe me, I fight many different kinds of injustices (see my post last week about my old high school)…”  Frankly, if the Popchips affair counts as an injustice in Mr. Dash’s world, then he seriously needs to get out from behind his computer a little more often.

There is also a larger issue at play here, a worrying one: that the definition of racism in America seems to be have been hijacked by a political agenda, leading it to become so diluted and watered down over the years, that it has reached an almost comedic climax. The trivial and ludicrous things that people cry racism about, and at the drop of a hat, never cease to amaze. I guess it is not called the “race card” in America for nothing; and it seems to be played much like the Joker or Wild Card. Don’t get me wrong. There are many things worth fighting for, and yes, racism does exist, and it is nasty when you experience it first hand, as I have a few times in my life. However, I suspect that many Americans of this recent generation (Mr. Dash included) have never experienced real hatred. Otherwise, they would know that it is much more serious than having one’s delicate sensibility offended by a humuorous advertisement meant to sell a bag of potato chips...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Good, the Ad and the Ugly

"There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules ... but there's one little rub. They forget that advertising is persuasion, and persuasion is not a science, but an art. Advertising is the art of persuasion."
Bill Bernbach

It used to be that a good advertisement made you laugh, smile or cry but a great ad was one that you had to watch at least five times before you got the deeper message. Not because it was too complex to understand but because it had layers and subtleties that you would not fully appreciate in your first or second viewing. It was a story whose finer points slowly unfolded with each new viewing; that is what we in the industry used to call a great advertisement. Hard to believe today, but those ads were ones people wanted to watch over and over again. It was these subtleties that made the brand in them memorable, relatable and formed an emotional bond with consumers long after the ad itself had stopped running. There was one other trait in those ads that set them apart from the dribble we are subjected to today. Advertising used to be based on strategic gut and creative instinct, with a little bit of research done to gain insight into the needs and motivations of your customers. The advertisements themselves were never subjected to research, or focus grouped to death with prospective customers. Those ads were based on ideas; today’s advertising is built on research and rarely has a discernible idea behind it. I loathe research not because you are unable to learn or because I believe that admen know better than anyone else but because of the way it is conducted. Rather than use research to better understand consumer behaviour, attitudes and beliefs, it is used to show customers five different ideas and ask which one they like most; all that achieves is the worst possible middle ground and lowest common denominator. If people always knew what they wanted and could articulate it, the world would be a very dull, unimaginative and limited place with few inventions or breakthroughs ever taking place. And besides you can never make everyone happy. The truth is that the industry uses research as a means to cover their backsides. By asking the consumer, they absolve themselves of any responsibility for failure. There is a reason the phrase is “risk and reward” and not “safety and reward.” I close this argument with one fact that may startle people. Apple, the most admired and coveted brand on the planet, now also the biggest company (bigger than Google and Microsoft combined), has a policy to never do consumer research or testing when developing new products and services. I rest my case about research.

The US SuperBowl is watched as much for the advertisements as for the American football played. Some even argue that the ads are more popular than the game itself; which could be true depending on the teams that end up competing. This yearly television event is the most watched TV show in America, and also the most expensive to buy an ad on. A TV spot can cost from $3.5 million to $4 million for 30 seconds, depending on the placement. It is for this reason that companies use the SuperBowl as a platform to introduce new products, make big brand announcements, launch a company or simply try to gain bragging rights to having aired a SuperBowl spot. Today, one could argue that the effect of a SuperBowl spot is much greater thanks to the internet. We not only have real-time conversation through social media and live blogging during the game but also an extended post-game analysis on the Monday morning that can continue for days and weeks after the last whistle has been blown. So a good advertisement has the potential to quickly become a global phenomenon through YouTube and other places but the stakes are equally high for the misses. Given this, one would think that companies would at least make the effort to put their best foot and creative minds forward every year. Yet, the opposite seems to be true, and it feels to me like it has been getting worse every year. Let’s review five ads I picked at random from this year’s crop for SuperBowl XLVI, and you be the judge.

First I would like to offer what I believe was a great ad (and long running campaign); one that has all the ingredients of advertising that I talked about up-front.

1987, Volkswagen Golf with Paula Hamilton (DDB)

“If only everything in life was as reliable, as a Volkswagen.” This ad is truly brilliant not because of special effects or a celebrity endorsement but purely because of its simplicity and its insight that ties Volkswagen, in a relevant and meaningful way to a core human need; one that cuts across borders and boundaries. I guarantee this ad was never researched prior to making it.

Now I offer five of the worst advertisements, of Super Bowl 2012, in no particular order:

1.    Century21 Real Estate LLC

This was Century 21’s first foray into the SuperBowl, and sadly for them I would have used them to buy or sell my house before I saw their ad. First rule of advertising, never feature Donald Trump in your ad. Second rule of advertising, just throwing in a reality TV star and celebrity athletes does not mean you don’t need an idea. If they wanted to differentiate themselves as “Smarter. Bolder and Faster” then they needed to do it in a way that re-assured a prospective client of those traits, in a relevant way. Would you have faith in real estate agent who claims to be smarter than the Donald, or spends time racing Apolo Ohno and showing up Deion Sanders rather than focusing on research and your needs? I like the intention behind it but the execution leaves much to be desired…

2.    Samsung Mobile USA – Thing Called Love

I am all for big grand shows but have to admit that in this instance that I have no clue about what the “The next big thing” from Samsung is from this advertisement. It is clear they are taking on Apple’s iPhone and iPad but with what is the question. Perhaps, it is the stylus pen because we have not seen this magnitude of innovation since 1996, when the Palm Pilot launched! Or maybe it is the me too front and back video on their mobile phone? Either way, if you want to promise consumers something BIG, then have something memorable or ground-breaking to show them, or you will look like a mindless ad filled with wannabe rockers, circus rejects and random gospel choirs that leave your audience scratching their head all the way to the nearest Apple store.

3.    Pepsi – King’s Court

There were only two thoughts that went through my head when I watched this commercial. First, I felt bad that Elton John had clearly fallen on such hard times that he needed to do this Pepsi ad. Second, that if this was the opening gambit of Pepsi’s resolve to take back huge losses in market share in America – then they should just quit while they are ahead and focus on their food business.

4.    Best Buy – Phone Innovators


There is an old Japanese philosophy called “Keiretsu” relating to the company you keep, and something we often used in advertising in the spirit of first among equals, that is the company you keep rubs off on you. Idea being to always strive for partnerships and associations that help you lift your brand value and product excellence. That is perhaps all Best Buy got right in this ad by trying to associate itself with these entrepreneurs, and inventors. They forgot the second and most important part, which is to demonstrate to us how they (Best Buy) fit into this group or belong in this league of innovation – just selling more products from more companies is more than a stretch, to qualify to be first among these equals…

5.    Budweiser – Return of the King

There was a time when the Budweiser advertising stood out and was memorable, and some of the early Clydesdale ads gave people goose bumps. This ad lacks an idea, context and memorability. There is nothing tying Budweiser or the Clydesdale’s to the message or situation – the end of Prohibition; that does not hold true for any alcoholic beverage. Nor are they offering a metaphor for today. In fact, it feels like Budweiser is now owned by a foreign company who is desperately trying to feel American, and demonstrate that the brand and beer remain a part of the heart soul and fabric of America. Oh wait, maybe that is because Budweiser is now owned by a Belgian company!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

U.S. Political Wall of Shame: 2000 to 2011


"I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
President Bill Clinton



Rep. ANTHONY WEINER (D-NY) 
In 2011, the newly married Congressman admitted to sending sexually suggestive photos of himself to several women through his Twitter account. He finally admitted that he had engaged in "several inappropriate" electronic relationships with six women over three years, and that he publicly lied about a photo of himself sent over Twitter to a college student in Seattle over a week ago. (source: ABC News)

Rep. CHRIS LEE (R-NY) 
A "family values" Republican, Lee even talked about passing legislation to educate children on internet safety. In 2011, he resigned hours after a news report that the married Congressman had sent a shirtless picture of himself flexing his muscles to a woman via Craigslist, along with flirtatious emails. He did not use a pseudonym or a false email address, but relied on his congressional email for all communication. (source: CBS News)

Rep. MARK SOUDER (R-IN) 
A staunch advocate of abstinence and family values who got high marks in his district for his evangelical beliefs. He received an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association and a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee. In 2010, he resigned to avoid an ethics investigation into his admitted extramarital affair with a female staffer. Famously, he and she had made a public video in which they both extolled the virtues of sexual abstinence.  (source: Washington Post)

Sen. LARRY CRAIG (R-ID) 
In 2007 Craig was arrested for "lewd conduct" in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. He sent an undercover cop a coded message with some flirtatious foot tapping in a public restroom known for male-on-male romps. Craig, as always, denied any wrongdoing, because as you know, bathroom play doesn't make a gay. (source: Time)

Rep. MARK FOLEY (R-Fla) 
He introduced several pieces of legislation intended to protect minors from sexual predators. In 2006, someone leaked a series of sexually explicit instant messages between Foley and teenage boys--namely those who formally served as congressional pages. Oh, the irony. (source: Washington Post)

Gov. ELIOT SPITZER (D-NY) 
After some sketchy transactions in early 2008, the IRS feared that Democratic New York Gov. Spitzer might have been the victim of extortion or identity theft. Actually, he was a paying customer of a big-time prostitution service. Long story short: He lost his job; his wife was publicly humiliated. Ashley Dupre, the call girl he made famous, now writes a sex column for the New York Post. (source: Time)

Sen. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC) 
At the start of the decade, many hailed Edwards as this decade's answer to Bill Clinton. He was a handsome, charming, Southern good ol' boy who fought for the little guy and stuck with his cancer-stricken wife when she got sick. But he turned out to be a not-so-great husband. Edwards had an affair with a woman who worked on his campaign, and maybe fathered her child. (source: Time)

TED HAGGARD (PRESIDENT, National Assoc. of Evangelicals) 
He was pastor of one of the largest churches in the country. He spoke with former President George W. Bush weekly. He was famous for his anti-gay rhetoric, so many took joy in 2006 when they learned that he was getting both his salad tossed and his brain cells fried by a male prostitute. What's worse than a homophobic homosexual with a meth addiction? (source: NBC News)

Gov. JIM McGREEVY (D-NJ) 
He quit politics in 2004 after announcing that he was a "gay American.' McGreevey had come under considerable scrutiny for appointing Golan Cipel, an Israeli national, as his top security adviser.  Turns out that Cipel was his “himstress.” After Cipel threatened to file a sexual harassment suit against the governor, McGreevey resigned, came out of the closet, got a divorce and a new boyfriend. All's well that ends well? (source: CNN)

Mayor KWAME KILPATRICK (D-MI) 
We had high hopes for this young, bright politician who dubbed himself the "hip-hop mayor" and promised to steer Detroit in a new direction, but that narrative shifted to a tawdry tale of a sexting politico consumed with sex and lies. In Jan 2008, the Detroit Free Press published text messages between the married Kilpatrick and his chief of staff. Both lied under oath about their affair and both ended up in jail. (source: Time)

Gov. MARK SANFORD (R-SC) 
This Republican South Carolina governor takes the "And I Am Telling You" approach to political scandal: If you want him out, you better throw him out because he's not leaving on his own accord. What's his crime? He told his staff last summer that he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail." What was he really doing? The married father of three was hiking through the streets of Buenos Aires with his Argentine mistress. As a result, he faces 37 ethics charges. Good luck with that, Mark. (source: Time)

Rep. GARY CONDIT (D-CA) 
Former Congressman known for his "pro-family politics" became a household name in 2001 after a young woman he'd been having an affair with, Chandra Levy, went missing. After 67 days, Condit acknowledged the affair but denied any involvement in her disappearance. Levy's remain were found more than a year later in a park in Washington, D.C. (source: BBC)

Rep. VITO FOSSELLA (R-NY) 
Got busted for having an affair back in 2008 after being stopped for a DUI just three blocks from the home of Laura Fay, the other woman.  Fay was an Air Force intelligence officer working for the pentagon when they first hooked up. The affair got pretty hot and steamy, and even went international when the two carried it over to the UK in 2003. It got so serious, and they had a kid together, but no marriage. She bailed him out of jail. (source: NY Times)

Gov. BOB WISE (D-WV) 
Wise made the mistake of hooking up with Angela Mascia-Frye, who has since dropped the -Frye because her husband divorced her. Phil Frye, the pissed-off husband, not only called the two of them out on their shenanigans, but also up and ran for governor in a bid not for the seat (because he had no chance of winning), but simply to annoy Bob Wise and call more attention to his hot little secret. They do drama differently in Appalachia. (source: Manolith)


Sen. JOHN ENSIGN (R-NV) 
This guy was a real piece of work, but not nearly as bad as his buddy’s wife, with whom he had an affair for quite some time before she finally turned on him — for cash. Ensign is a Senator from Nevada, and still is, but this one hurt. (source: Time)

Assemblyman MIKE DUVALL (R-Yorba Linda) 
His story is hilariously entertaining. The guy was in the middle of a committee appropriations meeting, during a break, and didn’t realize that his mic was still live as he talked about his affair and all sorts of naughty things to his chuckling buddy. The whole conversation was recorded, and aired for the world to hear, and it’s worth a listen. At least the guy had fun, right? (source: LA Times)

Rep. TIM MAHONEY (D-Fla) 
He took his post as a replacement for a guy who was run out of office after getting caught sending dirty IMs to young male intern. By comparison, Mahoney wasn’t bad, but his constituents still weren’t happy about his affair with Patricia Allen, a staffer of his. She found out he had other girls and wanted either more, or nothing, so he fired her. That didn’t work out too well. He ended up paying her $121,000 to keep quiet, only it was too late. (source: Politico)

Rep. DON SHERWOOD (R-PA) 
In 2004 he had an incident. Apparently he and a woman named Cynthia Ore, who was not his wife, liked to get a little rough. Sometimes they got too rough, and Ore called the cops from the bathroom of Sherwood’s DC apartment one weird night that Sherwood would sorely regret. Not only did his opponent bring the whole thing to light during re-election campaigning, but Ore sued him, claiming multiple assaults throughout their relationship. (source: Outside the Beltway)

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections on Two Thousand and Eleven

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.” 
Albert Einstein

Two thousand and eleven feels like it will be remembered largely as the year in which humanity’s integrity and honour fell by the wayside and everything in the world seemed to be off kilter as a result of the great precipice created in our world. It was a year filled with company destroying financial revelations, country-crumbling debt crises, leadership failures and big economic disappointments. It was a year when honesty and transparency seemed in short supply, everywhere. Many of the revelations were sadly, not so much shocking as simply removing the thin veil that barely hid what we already knew to be true for some years now.

It was also the year when some of the most oppressed people in the world stopped fearing their governments and started to rectify this equation to finally make government fear the people. The Arab street locked arms, raised voices, gave lives, but in the end succeeded in striking down the tyrants that used fear, torture and censorship to shackle them for decades. It was the year of the Arab Spring or Awakening, as the longstanding and brutal dictatorships of Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Tunisia all fell and the ones still left standing are on the brink of revolution. All this ignited by a single act of frustrated defiance by Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit seller, on the streets of Tunisia. He set himself on fire to protest police corruption and continuous harassment by government employees, and his martyrdom set in motion a chain of events that the most brilliant analytical minds at the CIA, Mossad and Pentagon had not foreseen in any of the scenarios they have spent their lives exploring and building. There were even simmers of discontent in China with the short-lived Jasmine protest and now we are seeing it engulf mother Russia. Last weekend saw the largest demonstrations held in the streets of Moscow and other cities since the fall of the old Soviet Union. People came out in the hundreds of thousands to protest voter fraud and demand the resignation of Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, the great democracies of India and the US also saw their share of people power, albeit without much turmoil or disruption so far. In India, Anna Hazare’s movement to create Lokpal or citizen ombudsman bill to fight corruption was passed by the Lower House this week and is currently being debated in the Upper House. The bill was first introduced in 1968 but never managed to see light of day. In the United States we saw the beginnings of a something that had all the power and popular support to grow into a force with clout and sway. But sadly, Occupy deteriorated into a homeless-filled, feckless orgy of sex, drugs and alcohol. The day Occupy announced that it would be a leaderless movement is that day I believe America stopped caring about them and went back to burying their frustration in their office cubicles. However, the discontent with Capitol Hill and Wall Street is not going away anytime soon. It will continue to fester across the nation until some real and meaningful change takes place, and some real prison sentences handed down for the fraud perpetrated by many executives.

Even as the world seemed starved and desperate for leadership nobody was able to step up to the plate and deliver. Instead it seemed the opposite was true with the Former Israeli President, Moshe Katsav, being sentenced to seven years in prison for raping a former employee while he was president. The former French President, Chirac, was found guilty of corruption and given to a two-year suspended prison sentence for diverting public funds and abusing public trust. The head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had to resign after he had sex with a New York hotel maid. His wife stoically stood by him even as he admitted to having had consensual sex with the maid. Meanwhile Europe was in turmoil with the constant fear of the impending disintegration of the European Union and Euro zone hanging over the markets like a dark cloud for the better part of the year. Every day we heard about another country on the brink of default on their loans, from having lived beyond their means for more than a decade. It was not just the smaller and developing economies of Iceland, Ireland or Greece that faltered, but also the fully developed and large ones of Italy and Spain that are teetering on the edge of that debt cliff. Had one of these big countries gone it would have taken the whole Euro zone down with it. They say that in the times of great crisis, great leaders emerge; I guess they got it wrong. Instead of leadership and fortitude, we had Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy pussyfooting around the problems, relying on German coffers to shoulder Europe’s’ self-created woes, and finally asking private banks to write-off loans and thus share the public burden. The one good thing that did come out of this was that Silvio Berlusconi had to finally resign, giving the Italians a fighting chance to keep their country alive with the “developed world” label still intact. It is also true that while the US’s troubles are much deeper and more worrying, the dollar was saved not by anything the US Federal Reserve or the government did to shore up investor confidence, but by the fact that the only other option – the Euro did a phenomenal job of making itself look worse and even less secure than the weak dollar.

Back on the sub-continent, Indians witnessed the uncovering of one scam after another. Dirty politicians, unscrupulous businessmen, even corrupt officials in The Indian Space Research Organization. Sadly even the once revered Indian army was not left unsullied. Each new scam unearthed was bigger, more daring and conducted with greater fearlessness and abandon than the last one; in the end leaving no Indian institution unscathed. It seems that the ruling Congress Party had made a decision to make hay while their electoral sun shone, and pretty much everyone from Sonia Gandhi to the bottom layers of the party had their hand in the taxpayer’s cookie jar. It was only after a prolonged public outcry, major media coverage and really bad International press that a single arrest was made. One has to wait and see how many years these cases drag on and if there will ever be a single politician prosecuted for any wrongdoing. I still see all the disgraced politicians smiling and looking shameless and plucky, as if they know of enough skeletons in other closets to ever be prosecuted by their peers. We shall see.

In America, too, it was the year of uncovering scams pulled off by all the major retail and investment banks, as well as unethical if not illegal business practices by many large and iconic companies. Curiously, though, not a single corporate executive was prosecuted or even indicted for this wrong doing. Instead settlements were made with all the companies, forcing them to pay seemingly large fines but also allowing them to admit “no wrongdoing.” Perhaps I am a little slow but I don’t understand this logic – you commit a crime and instead of prosecution you agree to pay a large sum of money; which happens to be no more than 25% of the total amount you illegally and unethically made, and you get to say you are not guilty of doing anything wrong – how exactly does this serve as punishment and more importantly as a deterrent?

I guess we could look back at two thousand and eleven and conclude that the Mayan prophecy about twenty-first December two thousand and twelve being the end of the world, could quite possibly be true. Talk to anybody and they will tell you they think the world feels like it is going to hell faster than we can say the word. I am sure every generation felt this sense of hopelessness and despair at some point in their journey; what we also know is that each of these generations managed to find a way through the Plague, Hitler, Hiroshima, Jallianwala Bagh and Apartheid. So while our world has for some time now felt tilted towards the majority of people seemingly driven entirely by selfishness, greed and unethical behaviour, I want to offer an alternative point of view on the Mayan prophecy. This prophecy maybe correct about the end, but not in terms of the four horsemen or fire, brimstone and volcanic ash, but as an end to a chapter. Perhaps this year will mark a new beginning, closing this long and dark chapter of unethical behavior, lack of regard for our fellow human beings and the selfish rot that seems to have overtaken the majority of people and begin to shift the balance back. Maybe we have sunk to our depths and it is time to rise once again; finding within us the very same things that have made us more united and more connected than ever before in the history of the world. The same kindness and compassion of neighbours that saw America through the Great Depression, the solidarity and selfless resolve that drove the mighty British out of India and a strength and never say die resolve that ended Apartheid. Perhaps this is what the Mayan Prophecy foretells and for what two thousand and twelve will be remembered.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

There is a pill for that...

"I'm addicted to Altoids. I call them 'acting pills."
Harrison Ford

Got heartburn? There is a purple pill for that. Having intimacy issues? There is a blue pill for that. Feeling a little depressed? There is a yellow pill for that. In fact, no matter what you may feel or not feel there is likely a pill for it. While the US and most global economies are expected to continue either negative or anemic growth over the next few years, the prescription drug market is slated to grow at 4% - 7% each year. It will be a staggering $1 trillion by 2013; globally. Think about the fact that a bottle of pills costs a few dollars and now think about that $1 trillion number again. In China the market is growing at double their GDP rate, more than 20% per year, and will be worth $80 billion in the next couple of years. However, it will take many, many more prescriptions before China comes close to overtaking the number one pill popping nation in the world, the United States of America. The U.S. market will retain its top spot and be worth a frightening $355 billion a year, by 2013 (source: IMS Health). It will remain just over a third of the global total for the foreseeable future and you can bet that the drug companies are working hard to keep you popping those little coloured pills.

When most people talk about the drug problem in the United States they think about Mexican cartels and mules smuggling heroin and cocaine in their body cavities. You might be surprised to learn that it is in fact prescription drug abuse that is the US’s fastest-growing problem. In fact, there have been marked decreases in the use of illegal drugs like cocaine, while over a third of children over twelve years of age who used drugs for the first time began by using a prescription drug, non-medically. Over 70% of people who admit to abusing prescription pain relievers got them not from their neighbourhood drug dealer, but from friends or relatives; only 5% bought them from a dealer (source: National Survey on Drug Use and Health). A separate study, the nation’s largest on drugs, found that “prescription drugs are the second-most abused category of drugs after marijuana.” (source: Monitoring the Future study). Statistics show that the number of people who died in one year from overdoses of prescription drugs alone is more than 6 times the number of people who died from overdoses of all other illegal drugs combined. And the number of emergency room visits attributable to the abuse of prescription drugs increased by 97 percent from 2004 to 2008 (source: US Department of Justice, 2011).

So the question I have to ask is, why?  Why is America so much more dependent than any other nation on these little coloured pills? Let’s start with the simple fact that I have not seen a single TV advertisement break without a prescription drug advertisement of some kind - on any channel. These are also not regular ads that inform you about a problem or potentially life threatening symptom. In fact, they are actually designed to convince you that no matter what you may or may not feel, you have a problem that requires a pill. Things that the majority of the world considers simple everyday emotions or the normal, natural ups and downs of life are anything but that in America. Put simply, if you get fired from your job, I think it’s quite normal to feel upset and a little depressed about it. However, once you are done feeling sorry for yourself, I would expect that you pick yourself up and go get another job. Seems pretty normal, but not in America. Here people are bombarded day and night with ads that tell them that these seemingly natural, healthy emotional ups and downs of life are actually a medical or chemical imbalance that requires urgent treatment. The pharmaceutical industry spent the GDP of a small country, $4.5 billion, on advertising in 2009 alone, and for their effort Americans rewarded them by spending over $200 billion on prescriptions (source: GOOD and Stanford Kay, Fast Company, 2010). It is the kind of return on ad spends that any client would die for.

Doctors are the other half of this problem. In 2009, if you add up all the prescriptions doctors wrote, it adds up to more than the entire U.S. population (source: GOOD and StanfordKay, Fast Company, 2010). Pharmaceutical companies have long been “plying physicians with the five-star meals, expense-paid trips, and scores of logo-emblazoned freebies that critics have long argued have a subliminal — if not a tit-for-tat — influence on prescribing practices.” (source: Pill Girl Report). Turns out that 20 cents to 30 cents of every dollar spent on our health for scans, operations, treatments, hospitalizations, and surgeries are completely unnecessary or ineffective and do nothing to improve our health (source: “Overtreated” by Shannon Brownlee). That’s not all; recently doctors went as far as creating a new disease called “Fibromyalgia.” The doctor who discovered this disease admitted later that he made it up, but over the years a powerful pharmaceutical lobby with a pill in hand has turned it into an acceptable diagnosis. Today, the Mayo clinic describes Fibromyalgia as “a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues.” I am no doctor but that description pretty much sums up how every person I know feels after thirty. The Mayo clinic also goes on to say that “while there is no cure for fibromyalgia, a variety of medications can help control symptoms. Exercise, relaxation and stress-reduction measures also may help.” The medical fraternity remains deeply divided on this and most doctors do not consider fibromyalgia a medically recognizable illness. In fact, many argue that the diagnosis actually leads to a worsening of the condition because it causes patients to obsess over basic aches and pains (that come with age, arthritis, etc.) that the majority of people simply tolerate. Whether you believe Fibromyalgia is real or not, what nobody can argue about is the fact the prescription pill for it, called Lyrica, has some very serious side effects that include severe weight gain, dizziness and edema.

Consider that 9 of the top 10 drugs prescribed in America, in 2009, were for treating depression and anxiety (source GOOD and StanfordKay, Fast Company, 2010). I guess we can surmise that in the wealthiest nation on earth, one with the highest standard of living and arguably the greatest creature comforts, we have the most anxious and depressed people in the world. If that is true then all I can say is God help the rest of us!