Ellis Thorpe: Perhaps shoppers are not as ‘free to choose’ as they believe

Supermarket shoppers are bombarded with special offers
Supermarket shoppers are bombarded with special offers
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Isn’t there a problem from the viewpoint of ethical economics that a common feature of retail shopping for consumer goods is the plethora of offers for the consumer?

For example the commonly seen offers of three for two or “BOGOF,” both of which reputedly are offers on price to save the consumer money or encourage them to spend more. Why, if goods can be offered for sale at a discounted price but only by buying more, the price of one good can’t be reduced?

Perhaps the purpose of the offers is to sell more goods or in some instances give one away in order to boost demand, increase revenue and indubitably profits.

As this kind of marketing seems to be becoming routine, it would seem that there is room for a concept that doesn’t feature much in free market economics, in textbooks or in analysis and discussion.

Overproduction isn’t flavour of the month for economists of the free market capitalist enterprise economy, and it seems somewhat contradictory to be thinking of it when we have the need for food banks and in many parts of the world our fellow human beings are actually starving.

Just as disconcerting is a recent report from the University of Edinburgh which showed the world’s food waste is huge – one-fifth of the world’s food is wasted either by people consuming far more than they need or food thrown away which is left to spoil.

To what extent, then, are consumers in a capitalist economy “persuaded” to purchase and consume more than they actually need by the advertising and marketing industry’s strategies and sophisticated techniques? Perhaps we consumers are actually not entirely “free to choose” when we visit the shops or go online to buy our goods as we might be?

The economists of the Chicago School see “free to choose” as an essential part of economic freedom – for example “how much to spend on ourselves and on what items”.

“Free to choose” also extends to relaxed government regulations of various kinds – as long as the consumer has the information and can then “choose.”

Perhaps unfairly much of this classic economic theory is given the authority of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations but it is doubtful if as a political economist and moral philosophy he would have embraced Thatcherism.

How valid today are the criticisms of advertising and marketing ploys to “persuade us” to buy, and how given “depth analysis” into our unconscious minds are we “free to choose” as most contemporary economists assume?

Arguably the success of the world’s largest advertising and marketing agency should give ethical economists food for thought. It has recently reported record results for a fifth consecutive year.

Ellis Thorpe BA, MSc, retired university lecturer