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Targeting the susceptible

The birth of a new baby is a time for celebration and joy, but the good feelings can be tempered by new things to worry about. The health of the child must be of concern, and new parents will be thinking about such things as whether the child might have any developmental or physical problems, whether he will succumb to diseases or, worse, SIDS (where tragedy is inexplicable), whether the risks of medical intervention such as medication or vaccination are balanced by the benefits, and how best to transport her around safely. There may be financial worries because part of the family income is lost when the mother stops work to look after the baby. There is a social cost as well, because a baby restricts where you can go and what you can do, so a new mother who was previously outgoing and gregarious may now find herself talking only to a baby and the family pets.

Sydney's ChildWhen I became a grandparent I was reminded of these worries, not because they were happening to me but because I was reintroduced to the world of parenting magazines and the advertisements in them. As an example, at my pharmacy I picked up a copy of an excellent and informative magazine which I would have no hesitation in recommending to all parents and grandparents. It is a free publication which relies on advertising to cover the rent, payroll, and other business expenses. I have no problem with that, and the vast majority of the ads are just what you would expect - baby clothes, holiday activities, private schools, sport and school coaching services, child minding and nannies, toy shops, entertainment, memorabilia and so on. What worry me are the advertisements which directly address the three concerns mentioned above, and exploit those concerns to sell fraudulent products and services. I don't blame the publication in any way for running these advertisements. Nothing in them is illegal and the claims are not obviously outrageous to someone who doesn't know the background. After all, one of the criteria to be a successful conman is to be believable.

The readership of magazines like this is an obvious target for the anti-vaccination liars, and the first issue I saw had a submitted article containing the usual drivel, half-truths and outright deception that we have come to expect from these ghastly people. They don't really like to pay for advertising (the copy would be hard to write: "Polio never hurt anyone, but vaccines will kill your kids"), so they prefer editorial. The next issue contained two letters from "concerned mothers" which contained language which shouted "form letter" to anyone familiar with their tactics. It's towards the back of the paper, however, that the serious deception starts, in the "Professional Directory" and the classifieds. Here's where you find the chiropractors who can cure ear infections and colic, the homeopaths who can fix bed wetting, ear infections, epilepsy, emotional problems and eczema, the herbalists with the cure for ADHD and Asperger's syndrome, the NAET quackers with their little bottles of air to treat allergies, and the fake cures for autism. Then there's the pyramid scheme and chain letter sellers offering spurious "work from home" opportunities. Intermingled with all this rubbish are advertisements for legitimate businesses whose owners must be appalled by the dross that surrounds them.

I must say again that I do not blame the magazine publishers for any of this. They have a business to run and they cannot be expected to have the expertise necessary to identify every false claim or empty promise made in the advertisements that they run. If they were to reject an advertisement for medical quackery, for example, they might find themselves involved in battles that they don't want (and can't afford) to be in. Examples of the sort of retaliation they could expect can be seen in the hysterical reactions to the NSW government's attempts a few years ago to clean up medical fraud. Another example came from the parenting web site Kidslife. When a pro-vaccination article was run on that site, the response of the anti-vaccination liars was not to rebut the article but to look for information that could be used to smear the people running the site and the directors of the company that owns it. When your opponents' weapon is ad hominem, their business is fraud, their tactic is lying, and their creed is the end justifies the means then sometimes it is easier to just lie back and take their money.

Every business person who sells Christmas gifts or fun park rides or fast food knows that children are the most useful levers to use to open a parent's wallet, but at least these people offer some form of value for money, and what they offer is of value to the child (and their marketing effort is directed at the children themselves). Medical quacks and financial scamsters who exploit parents' fears and concerns arising from parenthood are little different from kidnappers who ask for money to prevent harm to a child. They don't see a child and say "Here's someone I can sell a burger to"; they see a child and say "There must be some dollars near here that aren't yet in my wallet".

This article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on March 30, 2010
Yahoo! 7 News

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