Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pull Tabs and Alcohol Advertising

Just before Cambodia beer made its recent debut, the government declared that all alcohol advertising should be banned, to improve road safety among other things. They quickly realized that that would be impractical and amount to a drastic change since beer posters and banners are ubiquitous and seemingly are just about the only decoration the typical local Khmer restaurant or bar has available.
But at least they figured they could prohibit those pull tab beer promotions, except that Cambodia beer had just come online with one and, well, since they had no warning of the change it didn’t seem right to stop them. So okay, that’ll be the last pull tab promotion. Now several months later the pull tab ban has been forgotten and all three major beer brands are competing with those same promotions. I personally have a strong distaste for them for two reasons; they’re not likely to be recycled and they’re a bloody nuisance.
As to the former, while it’s true that they are very small, when you’re talking about hundreds of millions of them, it starts to add up. Regarding the nuisance part, while thinking about this month’s topic I saw a bar girl cut her finger on one. Okay, a good point to make but hostesses can be ditzy so not necessarily a strong argument against pull tabs. Then a few days later as I was formulating this article in my mind, I cut my own finger. Yes, I am approaching geezerhood and I have been getting clumsy of late – reaching for things which fly out in all directions instead of being held in my normally firm grip – but still, is it really a good idea to have millions of sharp little objects floating around the environment? The tab which bit me was being crunched up so I could put it back into a can and recycle it. I used to put them back in while there was still beer in the can – otherwise they often don’t get recycled – but they would sometimes come back out into my mug, so I gave up on that one.
Pull tabs were banned in Oregon in the early seventies so the nasty little buggers are deep in my consciousness. Digression: I realize I mention Oregon a lot in these articles, but it is a special place: Oregon is to the US as Cambodia is to southeast Asia; a small, friendly, easy going, low key place to live or visit. Now I understand that few readers of this article have any interest at all in going to America, but if you do, skip New York, Florida and California, the big three tourist magnets, and head to Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. If you have to do the big three, at least make a little time to get off the beaten path.
One of the great things about Oregon is its 100% public coastline; there are no private beaches and no private land within the riparian zone; it’s the only state that I’m aware of where that is true. One of things people most like to do on the coast is walk the beaches. Before the ban people were getting their feet cut up by pull tabs strewn around the sand and that was the impetus behind their prohibition.
Personally, I find it hard to imagine how pull tab prizes would encourage people to drink, only possibly change their brand. It’s also debatable exactly how much advertising of alcohol affects the total amount consumed. Alcohol has been around as long as Western civilization: I never tire of pointing out that Jesus’ first miracle involved changing water into wine. Supplies were depleted at the wedding at Cana at least partly because of  Jesus’ presence, since a lot of extra guests came to see Him… He figured it was important to let the celebration continue. To let the good times keep rolling.
I don’t think my own intake is affected by advertising, though it’s hard to say what deep, deep subliminal messages were planted in my brain from an early age. I certainly find it difficult to go a day without at least a couple of beers; the only exception being if I’ve got a raging hangover from the night before. Alcohol is a great mellower, relaxer, easer of tension and obliterator of inhibitions. It’s also been shown to be benign healthwise when done in moderation. Studies have shown that people who have two drinks a day live longer than total teetotalers. No need to mention that serious souses don’t live all that long.
This brings up another ‘big’ question. Does the moderate imbiber live longer in spite of drink or because of it? Is that moderate amount of alcohol still a negative for your body but its evils counterweighted by the good it does to your mental attitude? In a perfect world where everybody is high and happy on life, would there no longer be a market for alcohol? Would people no longer need an escape? Would drinking become history?
Clearly, no need to worry about that now, the insanity and inanity of life demands palliative care – at least it does for me and most of you out there reading this. What would be good to know is the impact of advertising on individual consumption and the total number of imbibers.
The subject of banning alcohol advertising in Cambodia was brought up again at the beginning of October in a conference organized by the Ministry of Information, National Road Safety Committee and World Health Organization. An official from the Ministry of Public Works and Transport who attended was quoted as saying that “…traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities can be prevented through… control over alcohol advertisements promoting drinking.” They no longer seek to ban all advertising but want to include ‘don’t drive drunk’ messages on labels and prohibit all audio and text on TV beer ads. Another person interviewed for the article said reducing drunk driving is more a changing of attitudes towards it and better enforcement, which I tend to agree with.
Nevertheless, advertising has to have an effect: when a young malleable mind sees posters or TV ads showing happy smiling beer drinkers with beautiful girls (or boys) at their elbows, it has to make an impression. When my son was a teenager he referred to drinking as ‘romantic’. That’s exactly the image that alcohol purveyors seek to implant.
On the topic of the impact of advertising, let me refer again to a study done on young children a few years back. Three- to five-year-old kids were given a MacDonald’s hamburger in a Mac wrapper and an identical one in a plain wrapper. They did the same for fries and baby carrots, which MacDonald’s doesn’t sell. In every case, by a wide margin, the kids said the food in the Mac wrapper tasted better.
So the next time you have a hankering for a Big Mac, think about it, are you craving it because you’re hungry and it tastes good, or because you subconsciously expect it to make you happy? Or help you find the girl or boy of your dreams? Contentment? Enlightenment? Considering what goes into them – lettuce soaked in a chemical bath to keep it looking fresh far longer than it ought to – and how they’re made, taste is probably not your true motivator.
I’m quite certain ads have no effect on my alcohol habit, or whether I drive under the influence, but there are a lot of impressionable people out there and it’s not hard to imagine that a lot of them are encouraged to drink through advertising; we’re all looking for a good time, no? What’s more, though a couple of beers a day may be perfectly okay, we all know how easy it is to go overboard. Even many of us who don’t get flat out, laying-in-the-gutter drunk, still have a tendency to find it hard to stop at the benign 2-drink level. Let’s face it, every time you wake up weak, woozy, headachy from an over-the-top bout with alcohol the night before, you have tortured your body, put it through the ringer. Sure it was great for your head - you had a jolly old time - but it was equally bad for your body.
There are many aspects that have given alcohol its well-deserved bad rep. The accidents, the slobbering, puking, drunkenness, the craziness, the violence, the diseases, the addiction are all undeniably points of negativity and danger. Americans thought it was so evil back in the early 20th century they banned it. Conservative Christians, Hindus and Muslims are all down on boozin’. (I’m convinced the reason why Arabs in particular and Muslims in general are so contentious, quick to anger and prone to indulge in fundamentalism is the prohibition of alcohol, sex and drugs along with the heavy consumption of strong coffee. Under that regimen, I’d be freaking mad too.)
On the above basis, I think all adverts should be banned. People could easily find it without marketing if they’re into it, but there’s no good reason for encouraging people to drink more than they otherwise would. There’s also no good reason to allow advertising to romanticize it by drawing alluring but ultimately false impressions of drinking that makes it seem so acceptable and benign without also insuring that people understand the reality, the dark side.
My other major complaint with alcohol ads in Cambodia simply has to do with esthetics. It totally uglifies the country to have ubiquitous beer posters marring the countryside and city entertainment districts. At one point I thought of taking a nighttime picture of Street 136, but then when I looked I realized all you would see was lighted beer signs. Tacky, trashy, ugly as sin is what comes to mind.
Instead of interesting, artistic, catchy logos individually designed and created for each bar, you have a line of beer signs all in similar colors since all three main brews are very close in the impression they give. And what do the bar owners get for trashing the visual scene? They get a free sign in which the top half is beer ad and in the other half the Khmer name is much larger than the English; by law the Khmer is supposed to be three times the size of the English. When making your own sign you can fudge on that requirement. The part that means anything to the bar’s promotion comes down to about a third of the sign’s area. For that they save a big $50; the cost of a sign without the beer ad top. They pay tens of thousands of dollars to create a really nice looking bar and then allow it to be totally tackified to save a lousy fifty bucks. But maybe people don’t realize how cheap they are; well now you know.
I can see, for instance, a bar having a small lighted sign saying which beer it has on tap, but coasters, bar mats, umbrellas, posters, banners, large lighted signs and more? I can understand why local funky Khmer establishments would think a free sign is a great thing because they work on a really small margin and besides have no idea how hideous their beer-poster décor looks. They have no clue of how tasteless it is to cover the surface of all your walls with beer ads. But a westerner? C’mon man, ambiance, style, individuality and taste are important.
All that ranting aside, if you’re one of the many bar-owner friends of mine who’ve succumbed to the lure of a free sign, forgive me for being so indelicate. I realize it’s not always that easy to be different, to buck the trend since most people are doing it. Please don’t take it personally, it’s just part of venting my loathing of advertising in general. Money isn’t the root of all evil, advertising is.
While I can’t imagine that beer advertising will ever be completely banned in Cambodia, esthetically it would be a wonderful gift for Phnom Penh and the whole country.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

China Says Jump; Cambodia Asks, How High?

Two months after the last Asean – Association of Southeast Asian Nations – meeting, Cambodia is still catching flak for torpedoing a joint statement that would have referenced the territorial dispute in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines and Vietnam; Malaysia and Brunei also have competing claims but they’ve maintained a lower profile. Vietnam and the Philippines wanted the closing statement to ask all parties to adhere to a code of conduct and abide by basic rules of the sea. It was the first time in the Association’s 45 year history that no closing communiqué was agreed upon.
Since Cambodia holds the rotating chair this year it did its damnedest to prevent any language not approved by Beijing. At one point it went so far as to cut off the microphone of the Philippine representative to prevent him from speaking. In response to Philippine complaints which were still being voiced long after the meeting, the Cambodian ambassador to that country wrote a scathing article accusing the Philippines of ‘dirty politics’ and saying it was trying to sabotage the meeting by injecting outside matters into it. That prompted the Philippine government to summon the ambassador for a dressing down – to register its own complaint at the Cambodian ambassador’s decidedly undiplomatic tone. The ambassador never showed up. With great surprise and raised eyebrows all around, Cambodia declared a few days later that he didn’t show because he’d already been reassigned. In typical Cambodian fashion the easiest way to deal with the situation was to avoid it with a tall tale nobody would ever believe. At least, in Cambodian reality, the confrontation was avoided by a little diplomatic sleight-of-hand.
It’s not hard to understand Cambodia’s extreme deference to China’s political needs as it’s the country’s foremost donor and financier. Think roads, railroads, bridges, dams, irrigation; the money keeps poring in. The dams are generally BOT, or build, operate for a long period and then transfer to the government. The rest are concessionary loans; that is, loans at lower than market interest, though considering how flush China is, the interest rates are higher than they need to be or should be. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of money flowing in and it’s made a clear difference in Cambodia’s development. The latest tranche, announced September 4, amounted to $523 million, five hundred of which is loans for unspecified infrastructure projects, a cool $23 mil grant for the PM to use at his discretion.
Sin Serey, Cambodia’s ambassador to Singapore, in response to an opinion piece in Thai newspaper The Nation accusing Cambo of being too closely aligned with China is quoted as saying, “Cambodia, a country with great civilization and culture for thousands of years, is not a Banana Republic. Cambodia has not been and will never be kowtowing to any country.” Of course not! However, according to Prime Minister Wen Jaibao, China will ‘closely coordinate’ with Cambo on the upcoming Asean meeting in November. But hey, that’s not kowtowing, only coordinating. He also thanked Cambodia for helping China maintain friendly relations with the Asean countries. Cambodia insists (paraphrasing from the same article) it’s not taking sides but actually taking a principled stand in urging members to settle their differences with China bilaterally, exactly China’s position. Well, now, if you were a 900 pound gorilla would you want to take on a pack of hungry hyenas one at a time or all together?
The dispute centers around China’s claim to the entire South China Sea encompassing about 2 million square kilometers, including areas that are very close, within figurative spitting distance, to the other countries but far from China, more than 2000 kilometers from the nearest mainland Chinese territory. Proximity doesn’t always infer right of ownership, but it’s a strong determining factor nonetheless. China’s claim goes back to the fifties when it drew a line around the South China Sea and said this is ours based on historical precedents. This would be akin to Mexico claiming California based on historical ownership while ignoring current US possession of more than 150 years. Or Spain claiming the same because they were there first, or why not go all the way back to Native Americans making the same claim?
There are three areas of concern regarding potential Chinese ownership of the whole South China Sea: first is possession of natural resources, supposedly there’s a lot of oil under the sea; two is fishing rights, in a very densely populated part of the world, of utmost importance; three, and most worrying for the international community is sea transport; about half of all oil shipments in the world and a commensurate amount of other trade passes through the South China Sea. It wasn’t till the seventies during China’s Cultural Revolution that serious claims were made in the area.
The current dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands – Daioyu in Chinese - in the East China sea is also instructive. Japan took over control of the uninhabited islands in 1895 when nobody was there and no other claims of sovereignty existed. It wasn’t until 1971, 76 years after Japan first took over, that China made its first claim or mentioned them at all. What is Japan supposed to do? take a deep bow and say, We’re sorry we’ve occupied your islands for more than a century, if it hurts your feelings we’ll pack up tomorrow.
Recent Chinese aggressiveness stems from three factors; a longtime inferiority complex and resulting quest for revenge regarding perceived past wrongs done to them, a desire on the part of the government to stoke the fires of nationalism to help it maintain control and divert people’s attention from the deficiencies of autocratic government, and a heady power that comes from their newfound economic prowess and wealth.
Chinese are still furious about the way they were humiliated by the British more than 160 years ago in the Opium Wars. They are rightly proud of their long history and rich culture but still don’t grasp how their xenophobia, feeling of superiority and aloofness back then kept them from changing and adapting to the modern world and thus made them vulnerable to relatively very small forces from the outside. Japan too made them feel small and inadequate in its easy takeover of parts of the country and the ruthless way Chinese people were treated. Now that they are borderline rich and powerful, they feel the need for revenge.
Still Japan is an important trading partner, to the tune of $350 billion annually, and investor and employer of many Chinese so it would seem to behoove China to minimize conflict with Japan. Recent news articles have implicated China in organizing the anti-Japan protests, which have turned violent and caused many Japanese to reconsider their commitment to China, all the while the state media counsel calm and non-violence. In Qingdao on September 15, rioters/looters spent more than four hours causing $30 million damage to a Japanese-Chinese joint venture supermarket. If they were Tibetans, Uighers or Falun Gong practitioners peacefully demonstrating they’d have their heads bashed in and taken to jail in a wink and a nod, but somehow the police in one of China’s largest cities stood helpless for 4 hours while a large supermarket was being ransacked.
Do they expect to humiliate Japan by forcing them to abandon the islands and still expect that country to maintain its massive industrial presence there? Maybe they feel so rich and powerful they can forego that economic relationship in spite of the great loss to both economies.
Let me relate an incident from my own experience while living in China in the mid-nineties. For three days Chinese TV news headlined a story about a few shipping containers from a recycler in New York that were sold as recycled scrap paper but actually were garbage. The question, continually repeated by news anchors in an insulted and angry tone was, Why is America sending us its garbage?
Having spent quite a few years in a cooperative recycling business in Portland I can offer a little background. Scrap paper is almost worthless. We received a token $5 per ton for it and the brokers received their shipping costs but not much more. We recycled it in spite of the loss because we believed in the cause. It all went to China where their low cost of labor allowed them to pick through it to pull out the more valuable stuff before recycling the rest for low quality uses. Because it was mixed paper people often mistook it for garbage, or would carelessly toss garbage in with it. Knowing the waste paper business and the probable lackadaisical attitude towards recycling in New York at the time, it wouldn’t be surprising if some or even a lot of garbage got mixed with the paper. It also wouldn’t be surprising if an unscrupulous outfit purposely misrepresenting their garbage as paper to save the cost of disposal and receive money for their ‘paper’. So a few containers worth a few hundred dollars sent by a private company became America Sending China its Garbage as an outrage and humiliation.
My Chinese wife, who I brought to America a year or so later, was amazed to see Made in China everywhere. So at the same time the Chinese media was casting America in the most derogatory terms as a means of stoking nationalism, it was making bundles of money while taking over the American market. I haven’t been back to China in 16 years but everything I hear tells me nothing really has changed.
For 16 years and more the US has been complaining about China’s manipulation of its currency to make their goods artificially cost less and for the same length of time China has promised to change and proceeded with very small adjustments just barely enough to temporarily appease the US and its other trading partners but not enough to change the reality on the ground. During that time it has amassed $3 trillion worth of foreign reserves, mostly in US dollars. This all came about because of capitalism’s love of doing business with a state which maintains firm control of its workers; forbidding unions or protests or any kind of dissention from the party line.
China for its part has taken the ball and run with it. With a combination of smarts and hard work in addition to currency and market manipulation and repression of workers, it has become too powerful not to want to flex its muscles and take what it considers its rightful place in the world, with threats of force if necessary.
China is now a communist country in name only. When I lived there my wife was a teacher in a minority kids’ boarding school. The teachers, administrators, students and maintenance staff all lived at the school in a gated complex. Health care and all social benefits were enjoyed by all. The maintenance staff lived in quite mean circumstances compared to the headmaster, but nothing like the gulf between the two levels today. At one point I met an important fellow who I was told had a lot of money. He rode a bicycle like everyone else because he didn’t want to flaunt his wealth. That’s communism. All that is finished, people are now on their own; the grave to cradle safety net - the Iron Rice Bowl - has been shredded.
Today, China much more closely fits the description of fascism. Quoting from my dictionary. “Fascism is a set of right-wing political beliefs that includes strong control of society and the economy by the state, a powerful role for the armed forces, and the stopping of political opposition.”
China has perfected the philosophy: The state controls everything important, all opposition is repressed, leaders live like royalty while the peasantry are exploited and oppressed for the benefit of the nation. Nationalism fits perfectly into the fascist mindset..
Consider the plight of China’s hundreds of millions of migrant workers. They work excessive hours for low wages, are segregated from and looked down upon by their fellow urbanites, they receive no benefits in the cities they live in, including not having the right to send their children to school, let alone healthcare or any other social services. They’ve worked hard to make China rich without receiving any of the benefits that are their due and certainly would be forthcoming in a true communist state. Illegal immigrants in America have more rights and receive more benefits than Chinese migrant workers in their own country. 
The question is why act the bully and turn your whole neighborhood into a conflict zone using a flimsy, if not specious, historical argument for a bunch of small uninhabited islands? China is a great country: Even if there are natural resources there, why play the ruffian and antagonize everyone around you? The answer is twofold: autocratic leaders need to feed the fires of nationalism to maintain their power, and they are basically clueless. Just as most Chinese people blindly follow the party line, the leadership is prone to take stands which almost everyone else in the world considers ridiculous. Their vendetta against the Dalai Lama is a case in point. He is very widely, if not universally, recognized outside of China as a wise and great spirit, an advocate for peace, yet to China he’s pure evil and every time he goes to visit another country China lodges a protest and threatens vague repercussions. To the rest of the world their attitude towards the Dalai Lama makes them a laughingstock. They are either so far out of touch they are oblivious or maybe they do understand the absurdity of their positions but don’t care because they cravenly feel the need to use him as a nationalistic focus, a foil to help maintain their power.
China has money to burn and knows how to use it to make friends with countries like Cambodia. Recognizing how important China is to Cambodia’s development plans, Cambodia will do all in its power to protect China’s interests, even against the wishes and interests of its neighbors.