On Sunday morning, when they ought to be in church, many Americans are worshiping at the shrine of Public Affairs, watching the TV interview shows. A strange subgenre of advertising has evolved to service these shows, in which corporations tout their patriotism rather than their products: General Electric brought freedom to Eastern Europe, Merrill Lynch is enriching the nation, etc.
But Sunday morning is dominated by a mysterious company that is almost unknown for anything except its commercials: Archer Daniels Midland. On Sunday, May 27, ADM had ads running on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," NBC's "Meet the Press" and CBS's "Face the Nation."
The ADM ads are like "Twin Peaks": lavishly produced and full of plot, they convey an ominous feeling that something is going on without any clear sense of what that might be. I can't explain "Twin Peaks," but the comically deceptive ADM commercials are not all that hard to decode. Prizes are hereby awarded in the following categories:
Most offensive. This one begins with a clip of JFK proclaiming, "Ask not what your country can do for you... ," and goes on -- in one of those warm, gravelly voices corporations choose to impersonate themselves -- to associate ADM with that famous sentiment. ADM's main line of business is refining corn into high-fructose corn sweetener and into ethanol as a gasoline additive. Both products depend on massive government subsidies and trade protection. There is probably no company in America where the question "what your country can do for you" is asked more often or answered more successfully.
Most dishonest. A man is climbing an ever-steeper staircase. Each step represents the number of minutes the average citizen of some country has to work to afford a pound of sugar -- ranging from the United States at 1.47 to China at 74. The point is supposed to be that America is blessed with cheap sugar. The purpose is to quell any doubts about the government's insane sugar price support program.
What's wonderful is that ADM doesn't make sugar. Its interest in sugar price supports is solely as maker of a rival product, corn sweetener, which would have no market if sugar could be sold here at the world price. Artificially high sugar prices cost consumers more than $3 billion a year. Obviously, the fact that the average Chinese must work 50 times longer for a pound of sugar than the average American has almost nothing to do with how much he pays for sugar and everything to do with how little he gets paid.
Most cloying. A woman pulls up at the gas pump and, in a voice-over while filling up, expresses her joy over ethanol. "Now that pure grain ethanol has replaced lead in gas, the air's a lot cleaner for everyone, especially kids." Actually, of course, the air is as clean for kids as it is for adults. That's one of the things about air. And a recent study -- controverted, to be sure -- says that ethanol cuts carbon monoxide but increases other nasty things in the air, for a net increase in smog.
Gasoline using ethanol gets an exemption of six cents a gallon from the federal gas tax. Since ethanol is only one-tenth of the combined product, this amounts to a whopping 60-cents-a-gallon subsidy for ethanol itself, which otherwise would be uncompetitive. Including state tax breaks, the total government subsidy for ethanol since 1980 has been $4.6 billion. ADM has three-quarters of the ethanol market. Thanks to ethanol, says the ad, "We don't need as much foreign oil." In fact, it takes more energy to produce ethanol than the ethanol replaces.
Most mysterious. This one also features a woman pumping gas into her car. Children are in the back seat. But remember all that stuff you heard in the last commercial about how the air is getting cleaner? Well, forget it. "Every day there's a grim reminder hanging in the air over our cities, and ... we all have to be concerned." Gasoline has gotten cleaner? No, "gasoline has gotten dirtier. The chief culprit is benzene, a known deadly carcinogen."
What to do? ADM recommends a procedure for pumping gas just short of the precautions you might take for changing the rods in a nuclear power plant. "Keep all of your car windows rolled up, so that the fumes can't get inside. Stand upwind or away from the nozzle. And if you get gas on your hands, be sure to wash it off."
How thoughtful. But why this sudden fretting about benzene? It turns out that benzene and ethanol are competing additives for meeting clean air standards. The business about standing upwind is just part of a campaign to get benzene banned or ethanol made mandatory.
You can almost count on any bit of ADM civic braggadocio to turn out to be dubious. So I was more pleased than shocked to learn that ADM's much-self-touted cornstarch additive for plastics -- the one that supposedly causes them to decompose quicker in landfill -- is widely considered pointless by environmentalists. It turns pieces of plastic into plastic powder. Maybe the high-fiber, low-fat, cholesterol-free vegetarian patty promoted in yet another ad is actually the boon to humankind ADM claims. But, knowing ADM, you have to wonder what's the catch.