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Peter A. Ubel

Peter A. Ubel

Posted January 5, 2009 | 11:40 AM (EST)

Attack of the Killer Oreos?


Not long before the presidential election, the Wall Street Journal editorial page warned its readers about what it called the attack of the killer Oreos. You have to admit it's a pretty sensational image -- of an Oreo silently stalking its prey, leaping upon an unsuspecting consumer. In fact, this is exactly the kind of image Journal editorialists wanted people to think about when voting in November. "One of the things at stake in this election," the Journal reminded us, "is who will run agencies like the FCC, which have enormous discretionary power." And an Obama administration, we were warned, will interfere with companies' abilities to market their products to us, and our children.

If the current economic crisis has taught us anything, it is that unfettered markets are not the godsend that libertarians would have us believe. Our current economic mess is due, in no small part, to deregulation gone wild.

It is no surprise that the Wall Street Journal opposes the idea of regulating advertisement of junk food to kids. So even as companies find more ways to saturate our brains with images of their products -- paying TV shows to incorporate their products into plot lines for example -- free market evangelists remain unconcerned. As our children become increasingly obese with each passing year, these people can't understand why some of us would like to protect our children from things like junk food advertising.

Behind the Journal's view is a belief that humans are immune to any negative consequences of advertising:

Viewers already understand exactly what's going on when a TV character flaunts a name brand," they opined, "and that awareness is the best defense against whatever 'manipulation' is going on."

In making this statement, Journal editorialists are flaunting their ignorance of human nature. As a physician, I have spent my clinical time caring for patients -- smokers, overeaters, under-exercisers -- who have been harmed by many of the products that these kind of libertarians would want us to free from regulation. As a behavioral scientist, I have studied how easy it can be to unconsciously influence people's behavior. As the father of 8 and 10 year-old boys, I have yearned for a government that is willing to step in, when necessary, to protect my kids from the harmfulness of our excessive consumerism.

We live in a market-oriented economy. But a sensible society will recognize when the market needs to be reigned in.

Peter Ubel is Professor of Medicine at the University of Michigan and author of Free Market Madness: Why Economics is at Odds with Human Nature--and Why it Matters (Harvard Business Press, January 2009). To learn more, visit http://www.peterubel.com/