crypto and public policy

Partial Truth In Advertising and the Condom Wrapper

Filed under: Policy April 2, 2004 @ 5:20 pm

The Bush administration wants to add warnings to condom wrappers indicating that condoms may not prevent Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Needless to say, health experts are having a very hard time trying to fit a scientifically correct version of that complicated viewpoint on a condom wrapper. Yes, condoms don’t prevent HPV per se. So let’s ignore all the research showing that condoms are highly effective at preventing all sorts of sexually-transmitted diseases, including those which can make the effects of HPV far worse. Let’s also imagine that such a warning would indeed convince people to abstain from sex entirely, instead of disastrously leading to more unprotected sex.

Bush wants truth in advertising. So, even if a remedy is effective against a number of problems, we must take extra care to point out all of the problems against which it isn’t effective. In fact, since the Bush policy is abstinence first, it seems that whatever the benefits of a remedy may be, one must first worry about its risks.

Let’s further explore Bush’s “Condom Wrapper” view of the world:

  • Bush’s letter announcing tax breaks reads “We’re bankrupting our economy! Here’s your $300.”
  • the Clear Skies Iniative bill reads “We shall allow the release of highly toxic mercury into our atmosphere, thus in the rain water, thus in the streams, thus in the fish that we eat.”
  • the Healthy Forests Initiative bill reads “We shall allow and recommend the clearing of 5 times more California forest land than we’ve ever allowed before.”
  • the State of the Union’s summary of the War In Iraq goes “we’re giving a whole new generation of poor Muslim youth a reason to hate the US” (let’s see both houses of Congress stand up and clap to that one).

If you’re willing to ignore all positive aspects of a given policy because of certain questionable downsides, then the above examples should be completely reasonable even if you’re on Bush’s payroll. Sure there is some upside to Bush’s policies, but he’s telling us that what matters is the downside, or even just the missing upsides (like a condom not preventing HPV)!

It’s the game of Partial Truth In Advertising. The fact that Bush is pushing to add such partial information on a condom wrapper says a lot about his strategy: push partial truths in media where there isn’t much room to provide a balanced point of view. I guess it makes sense for a President who “doesn’t like to read much” (as per Richard Clarke’s latest Air America interview).

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