The Western world currently lives in an over-sanitized state of fear. Outbreaks of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and swine flu (H1N1 influenza virus) in 2003 and 2009 respectively were declared pandemics. As Martin Lindstrom discusses, these outbreaks are in part responsible for the accelerated profits of antibacterial hand-sanitizers (2011, p.42).
The focus of this case study is Carex, a PZ Cussons brand. Carex have remained at the forefront of hand sanitation in the UK, as the first to introduce anti-bacterial hand-wash to the UK in 1994, and the first to introduce hand sanitizer in 1998 (PZ Cussons, 2013).
Carex have formed a brand concentrating on the importance of destroying germs with antibacterial soaps. While it appears Carex are offering health protection through providing products which destroy germs, their method of branding and advertising could be considered immoral. By utilizing a combination of misrepresentation and manipulation Carex (amongst other major anti-bacterial products) are creating a hygiene paranoia and in some cases causing health issues from the overuse of the products (Park, 2010).
In 2009 Carex released a campaign aimed to appear to support the NHS campaign designed to halt the spread of swine flu (Johnson, 2009). The advert was released on 8th May 2009, one week after the increase of the World Health Organization pandemic alert to four (Anon, 2009).
NHS 2009 Campaign: ‘Catch it, bin it, kill it.’
Carex 2009 Campaign
The senior brand manager to Carex – Vicki Brunning – comments: “The campaign actively supports a hugely important government health drive throughout the UK and as the leading brand within the hand wash sector, we wanted to get behind this, particularly at such a crucial time” (Johnson, 2009).
PZ Cussons saw a 16% rise in pre-tax profits (£88.8million) for year to May 31 (BBC, 2009).
PZ Cussons sales of anti-bacterial hand gel increased by 205% in the period April 2009 to August 2009 (Benady, 2009).
Superdrug reported 70% increase in sales for antibacterial hand wash products for the seven days to May 7. (Johnson, 2009).
It is clear to see the connection between the two campaigns, while the NHS campaign offers the advice, Carex offers the product as the solution. The NHS stresses the importance of killing germs as soon as possible, while Carex offers the means to do this with their range of products. Carex never vocalizes the effectiveness of their products against swine flu, as antibacterial sanitizer cannot prevent the spread of the virus, it is transmitted as droplets through the air (Lindstrom, 2011, p43).
However Carex used this unspoken association to convince the public using their products will reduce their risk of contracting swine flu. The introduction of fear-mongering and paranoia by sanitation companies is not a new tactic, however it is immoral to prey on individual insecurities regarding health to promote products.
Aside from fear-mongering during pandemic outbreaks of contagious viruses such as swine flu, antibacterial soap companies also continually manipulate psychologically. Carex has continually used a family-orientated approach to advertising (Pritchard, Smith and Thij, 1998). Their initial adverts using the fear of exposing children to germs with a consumable solution, able to alleviate the guilt.
Carex: ‘Boy and ball’
Carex: ‘Love, honesty, knowledge’
This connection of manipulating parental guilt is used throughout the Carex marketing strategy.
If the product were preventing or providing cure for a greater incident (fire, flood, explosion etc) this would be slightly more ethical, but as mounting evidence suggests, Carex products do not work as well as cited, and the overuse of antibacterial products can even lead to further health complications:
Dr Val Curtis (Barton, 2012)
Curtis warns against a marketing campaign that increases our sense of contamination. “It’s not good for mental health,” she cautions. Instead, the most effective way to get people to practise good hygiene or to use a specific product is to increase the sense of disgust. “The most powerful marketing tactic is the power of social norm,” Curtis explains. “In studies we conducted in the bathrooms of service stations, we found that the best message to convince people to wash their hands was moral – we put up signs saying: ‘Is the person next to you washing their hands?’
Thanks to the heightened fear of contamination experienced during recent flu epidemics, there is now a value judgment attached to carrying and using an antibacterial gel. “Purity is associated with goodness,” says Curtis. “Cleanliness and godliness do go together. People start to feel ashamed of not having clean hands, because the message is that you are not protecting others from your germs.
Dr Ron Cutler (Barton, 2012)
These sanitisers state that they kill 99.9% of germs, but the difficulty is that the data was done on inanimate surfaces, and they don’t replicate what happens on the human hand,” he says. And the human hand is different because “you have flora on your hand that lives there and interacts with other bugs on your hand”. And these percentages may not actually be so impressive. “My take, as a bacteriologist, is that 99.9% is nothing when you consider that organisms live in communities of 10 hundred billion; that 0.1% can mean a lot of bacteria!
It has been noted hand-sanitizing is detrimental as it removes the top layer of oil from the hands, taking the good bacteria and drying hands (Sesame, 2010). To counteract these claims Carex begun a campaign claiming their soaps can ‘tell the difference’ and do not remove the good bacteria (PRweek, 2004).
Carex: ‘Good and bad bacteria’
However there is little evidence readily available of this and their adverts were rejected by the ASA and ordered the advertisement to be amended (The Grocer, 2004). Furthermore studies have indicated insignificant results between test subjects using antibacterial hand-wash and those not (Aiello, 2010). While studies have also shown that children who are not exposed to germs at early ages have weaker immune systems in later life (Tremmel, 2009).
Brands such as Carex foster the opinion that the only way to remain healthy is the use of their products. This manipulation is unethical as it prevents the consumer from making informed decisions about the products.
As Lindstrom states, brands using this fear-mongering approach particularly with mothers to nurture the belief that “if they don’t buy all this stuff, they’re ‘not a good enough mother’” (Lindstrom, 2011, p.53).
Many people have developed further germ-phobia and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) relating to the over awareness of germs, as shown by the Carex website which now links to the mental health topic of OCD (PZ Cussons, 2013a). As a result of the immoral sanitation advertising the population is becoming too afraid to expose themselves to any germs.
Here are some extreme examples of germ-phobic products.
Dust free bear
Self-sanitizing chopping board
Many false claims made by the manufacturers of antibacterial soaps and hand-wash are often discredited and the adverts adjusted, therefore the advertising standards is already taking care of the over exuberant claims of these products. However there is still a place on whether it is acceptable to cultivate inherent fear towards illness in order to sell products, as well as implying the guilt of bad parenting skills upon failure to purchase.
An ethical code would assess in what way these products should be marketed. It is possibly wrong to market them as the protective shield your family can hide behind.
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