Nov 3, 2009

Thinking of the children

Each side of politics takes it as a given that governments should treat citizens at least a little paternalistically – laws which protect people against their own desires are too

Unit Man!
Unit Man!

Each side of politics takes it as a given that governments should treat citizens at least a little paternalistically – laws which protect people against their own desires are too numerous to list.

But it’s one thing to mandate seatbelts. It’s quite another to completely treat us like children.

In that spirit, the ACCC has introduced Unit Man, a comic character which, in the competition regulator’s words, is designed to “help consumers better understand unit pricing.” Yes – unit pricing, itself a fairly patronising initiative developed under the belief that consumers can’t do rudimentary sums in their head while standing in the soup aisle. Quite a damning indictment of our school system.

To sum up – the government decides Australians aren’t smart enough to figure out the cheapest way to buy cereal, so it compels supermarkets to display their prices differently. But then the government decides that consumers aren’t smart enough to notice, so it creates a cartoon character to make saving money  – and maths! – fun.


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15 thoughts on “Thinking of the children

  1. Slim

    Supermarket duopoloy to blame for soaring food prices.

    So perhaps Chris Berg could cover this issue with something more serious. Or are Wesfarmers clients of the IPA?

  2. Nick of McEwen

    I haven’t seen any of promo material for unitman, but I agree that he’s probably patronising and unnecessary.

    Your dismissal of Unit pricing is silly though. Not only do you overestimate the mental arithmetic ability of the average consumer, but you fail to acknowledge that all food companies deliberately size and price their items in order to make it difficult to compare them. When was the last time you saw a product that came in 125g, 250g and 500g size? If these products existed, it’d be easy, but I don’t know of them.

    It’s generally straightforward with milk and juice, with 1L, 1.5L, 2L and 3L being pretty standard, but amongst most packaged food, you’ll see all sorts of strange sizes where the highest common factor between them is deliberately set low, making them more difficult to compare. Sure, I (and hopefully most people) can work out that 375g of margarine for $4.28 is better value than 210g for $2.93, but it certainly would be easier if they were 400g for $4.50 and 200g for $2.50. Unit pricing cuts through this, and makes it easier to compare across both size and brand. I don’t see any problem with it.

  3. Jason Wilson

    Hmmmmm. I think I agree with unit pricing, just because I don’t like to spend more time than necessary getting groceries. More seriously, it would seem to be an simple thing to effect, and it would make it just a little bit easier for consumers to make comparisons (I note that I’m lucky in that I never have to be distracted by a misbehaving child in the shop – not sure how my mental arithmetic would go under those circumstances, even for simple calculations). That said, I agree that Unit Man is a bit naff, and possibly a bit infantilising. Just tell us what you’re doing! It might be good to ask some questions of the agency that designed it though, too: what picture of consumers have they formed, and how does that translate into their work for corporate clients?

  4. EnergyPedant

    Most people can’t do the figures in their heads. Not everyone is all that accurate when dividing odd numbers by a factor of 2.

    Having unit pricing is the same as forcing mobile phone companies to tell you what the full 24 month contract is or getting home loan comparison rates published. It makes it harder for the companies to hide price distortions (but it does force people to take their glasses when shopping so they can read the tiny print).

  5. kebab shop pizza

    No one seems to notice how Unit Man reinforces the ancient sexist stereotype that men are better at numeracy, not to mention the priapic, adolescent name ‘Unit Man’ and the continued promotion of the myth of the paternalistic male superhero, etc.

  6. John Humphreys

    Chris — how dare you defend the integrity of the little man. Don’t you know they are helpless drones with no clue about their own welfare. They must be controlled by us superior people. After all, what is the use of freedom, if you make a mistake!? 🙂

  7. Murray Hall

    I’m ambivalent towards unit pricing, but I certainly agree that the ‘unit man’ campaign seems condescending and paternalistic.

  8. Jenny86

    Dear Chris, Try shopping out in the burbs just once, then tell me if unitman isn´t perfect. Do you really have so little insight into the financial literacy of the general population? At the moment I´m living in Munich where they have unit pricing and it´s brilliant. I love it. No unitman offcourse.

  9. Charles Richardson

    Sorry Chris, I admit I haven’t seen the ads (not showing in Gorizia), but I really can’t see anything sinister about them. Compared to some of the wasteful, illiberal crap that gets served up as government advertising, this seems pretty inoffensive. And since when are cartoons just for children? Haven’t you watched Stripperella?

  10. Bogdanovist

    Stupid. Unit pricing has been demonstrated to lower prices and reduce packaging wherever it has been introduced. It’s not a matter of the numeracy of shoppers, having a single price listed to compare different products with makes things much easier and quicker, even if doing the sums is straigtforward.

    So, having introduced a completely sensible system, is the ACCC supposed to not advertise it? If you think the ‘unit man’ material treats customers as children then Coles and Woolies ads by comparison treat them like embryos.

  11. Dave Gaukroger

    I think you over estimate the financial literacy of a lot of people if you believe that unit pricing isn’t going to be useful Chris. The marketing might be stupid, but the overall program will bring a benefit to a lot of people.

  12. Chris Berg

    Dave, to be honest, I don’t want to fight and die on this issue – but there is a big difference between a corny ad making Australia aware that the entire currency is changing and Unit Man! a cartoon to make saving your own money at the supermarket fun. One is corny, the other patronising.

  13. Dave Gaukroger

    So was Dollar Bill, designed to help educate people about the change to decimal currency in ’66, also an example of believing Australians are stupid?

  14. Chris Berg

    Slim – I’m being perfectly consistent – perhaps when you agreed with me on asylum seekers you were looking for what you wanted to see? Anyway, what does Unit Man have to do with supermarket duopolies? Unit pricing, maybe (although I doubt it is as noble as you suggest). But certainly Unit Man is more: you can break trusts without treating the populace as children. I suggest there is something more going on than simple competition law.

  15. Slim

    Well this has certainly pressed some buttons for you, Chris – paternalistic nanny statism through to a damning indictment of our school system! It is Cup Day, after all, so it’s a slow news day, I guess.

    No, the government doesn’t decide Australians aren’t smart enough to figure out the cheapest way to buy cereal – it decides that duopolistic supermarket chains engaged in price gouging Australian consumers should make it clear how much they are paying for each unit they purchase.

    If I go to the supermarket to shop for a family of four and purchase say 50 items, there will be at least 6 choices for every single item – so that’s 300 mental arithmetic calculations for every shopping trip. Yes, I can do them with ease, but it’s much simpler and a more efficient use of my time to read the unit price on each shelf label. And try doing it with toddlers in tow. And let’s face it, even within brands there are size and quantity variations designed for different consumer needs, with opportunities for extra profit margins arising from the confusion.

    I’m sure the supermarket duopoly can handle this – the unit prices no doubt ship through the supply chain labelling software so it’s no big deal – they have print labels anyway. What’s a few extra lines of program code?

    Perhaps in a future article, you could cover the anti-competetive practices of the supermarket duopoly – from manipulating prices paid to suppliers and growers through to restrictive leasing arrangements in shopping malls and precincts.

    Good to see you back in form and thinking of the supermarkets. I was worried after being in full agreement with you last week on your realistic assessment of the asylum seeker issue. There’s a first for time for everything.

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