Friday, July 29, 2005

Praxywatch: Oxfam vs. Farm Subsidies

Ah, another day, another benevolent propaganda campaign . . . today's Praxywatch pits non-profit do-gooders Oxfam against government subsidies for American farms. For those who don't know how farm subsidies work, here's a grossly oversimplified rundown: the rise of international competition in the world farm products market has made it more difficult for American farmers to turn a profit. The powerful agricultural lobby has for years fought successfully to maintain a steady flow of subsidies (government checks, basically) to farmers who produce certain goods. These subsidies encourage farmers from the US and other rich nations with similar policies to overproduce and sell their crops at artificially low prices. This in turn creates a paradoxical situation in which floods of cheap agricultural products undersell third-world farmers in their own local economies and force them out of the market, wreaking havoc upon already fragile societies. The whole arrangement manages to be both starkly immoral and a colossal waste of money, making it one of the few economic issues on which the libertarian right and the progressive left almost completely agree.

But I digress. On to the orthopraxy:

In case you can't tell, that's REM frontman and well-known progressive Michael Stipe in the process of being doused in milk. He and other left-of-center celebrities have offered their services free of charge to Oxfam for the cause of putting an end to farm subsidies. The splash of cheap product (in this case, dairy) serves as a visual metaphor for the way farm goods from rich countries invade the markets of poor countries. That's what it says to me, anyway, but I already know how farm subsidies work and why they suck: I have no idea what the average Joe or Jane would take away from the imagery in this ad.

The Times article says that these ads are slated to run in fall issues of "national magazines," though it doesn't specify which. Farm subsidies as an issue is really tough to encapsulate in a single advertisement, and ad agency Benenson Janson definitely deserves points for effort, but I ultimately have to give this campaign low marks for efficacy. I hope I'm wrong and that the ads help laypeople understand the issue better, but I just don't see it happening. I guess it's possible that the sheer oddness of the images might spur some readers to scan the fine print and visit the web sites listed for more info, but it seems more likely that most people will simply shrug and move on to the next article instead. C- (sorry dudes; better luck next time).

Big agriculture is a formidable, entrenched force on Capitol Hill, so it's gonna take some damn shrewd PR to help sway public opinion back toward common sense. What we need is a strong viral sound bite, something that would work as well as "death tax" did for the anti-estate tax movement, to infect the language of news articles and op-ed columns and reframe the debate to our advantage. Even "Milk should grow bones, not crush lives" is too long and abstruse--it should be something short, sweet, and serrated like "fat-cat farmers" or "agricultural welfare" that's simple enough to be transmitted unaltered from person to media report to person. Thus the war of ideas rages on.