The Associated Press reported from Richmond recently that Consumer Congress volunteers were protesting an advertising campaign undertaken by the Virginia Electric & Power Co.
Vepeo is spending $140,000 for a series of advertisements and TV commercials that are designed to explain why a $246 million rate increase is necessary.
The Consumer Congress thinks Vepco's customers should not have to pay for ads that explain why the customers are going to have to pay more for electricity.
This difference of opinion between consumers and company employes evolved into a sidewalk shouting match, and pretty soon the Associated Press was on the scene to file a lively story. Small wonder.
There is little substance to the issue, but much emotion. It seems so ironic that the guy who get stuck with the bill should also have to pay for an explanation of why he got stuck with it.
I do not have much enthusiasm for defending Vepco's corporate policies. Handling public relations for Firestone 500 tires or for the Ford Pinto might be easier than creating a new image for Vepco.
Nevertheless, the facts in this dispute should be kept in perspective.
For one thing, fix two sums of money in your mind: The cost of the ad campaign is $140,000. Vepco's total revenues now run at the rate of about $1.4 billion a year.
Compare 140,000 and 1,400,000,000. If my arithmetic is correct, you will find that Vepco is spending about .01 percent of its revenues on its ad campaign. Take care to read that percentage figure correctly. It is not 1 percent; it is one-hundredth of 1 percent.
In other words, if Vepco is allowed to include advertising as a cost of doing business, in a month in which your electric bill runs $100 you pay one penny as your share of the cost of the advertising campaign. This is not the kind or outrage that raises my blood pressure to fighting level - or even high enough to produce a sidewalk shouting match.
If Vepco were not permitted to count advertising as a cost of doing business, it would have to stop advertising or pay the costs of advertising out of the profits of its shareholders. A reduction of one-hundredth of 1 percent in Vepco's current annual earnings of $1.92 a share would cut them by $0.000192 a year to $1.919808. The economic injury to Vepco's owners would be minor. The benefit to its customers would be microscopic.
The most serious consequence of not permitting Vepco's advertising to be counted as a cost of doing business might be philosophical rather than monetary. Such a decision would run counter to the accepted principle that it is prudent and productive for a business firm to spend some of its revenues on fostering a favorable public opinion of the goods and services it offers.
As Joe Crow commented in the Indianapolis Star recently, "Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you're doing, but nobody else does."
There may be many things wrong with Vepco, but its attempt to explain the need for a rate increase is not one of them.
The consumer who must foot the bills for new construction, soaring fuel prices, higher labor costs and many other things is entitled to have access to the facts and opinions of both the company and the consumer groups that disagree with the company. And he or she ought to be able to compare these two divergent viewpoints with the conclusions reached by the Virginia Corporation Commission.
These three groups seldom agree on much. But surely all three should have the right to be heard, and surely it will benefit us to listen to all three. Only through open debate can we develop the informed public opinion that fuels our democratic process.
There is always a significant time lapse between the conception of a new project and its planning, authorization, funding, design, construction and, at long last, completion. It can take five or ten years to build a power plant, a water purification project, or a new jail, courthouse or high school. Therefore the only way the public can make rational decisions about how much to spend and when to spend it is by keeping itself informed on the controversies that surrounded such questions.
However, when so many millions of the public's dollars are being frittered away, it is not productive to waste time or energy on pennies. We have bigger game to stalk.