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Saturday, 7 May 2016

The unpleasant side of corporatism: “Everything is for sale and nothing is for free anymore”

Yesterday, I went with my wife and three children to the centre of my city Almere, by bike. The weather was fantastic and so were the moods.  We all love to bicycle and when the winds are low and the temperature is high, nothing can beat riding one’s bike.

Even though all our children had visited a toilet before leaving home, two had to go to the toilet again, once we had reached the city centre.

While you might expect a story about dirty and smelly public lavatories, that one only uses when really, really necessary, it will be the total opposite. We visited a small shop and for the price of €0,70 per capita, my two children could visit a clean and pleasantly smelling lavatory in the centre of the city, sponsored by Witte Reus (i.e. an inexpensive A-label detergent, fabricated by German cleaning behemoth Henkel).

And when you look carefully, you might notice that many more of such specialized lavatory shops have appeared in the centres of cities and small towns in The Netherlands and beyond, of which “2-the-loo” is probably the most famous one. This shopping chain aimes at turning a public toilet-visit into a ‘bathroom extravaganza experience’, including multiple kinds of bathroom soap, soft fabric towels and bathroom perfume and deodorizer (all for sale in these shops).

While such lavatory shops might seem a blessing in disguise for people in desperate need (hence: a clean and pleasant, public toilet in the city centre), the idea gives me nevertheless an itchy feeling.

Now I had to pay €1,40 for two children and that in a time, in which cash money is becoming more and more a thing of the past. If I wouldn’t have had this money at hand, my children could perhaps not have gone to the toilet at all.

And why did this large brand of washing detergent ‘Witte Reus’ sponsor this public lavatory?! Did Henkel not sell enough washing power anymore? Or was this the brilliant idea of the new marketing director, who thought that “differentiation was the key for success in the dog-eat-dog, Dutch cleaning landscape”?! Who will know?!

And the most itchy question: should offering and maintaining a quite clean, public toilet for ladies and gentlemen in the city centres not be a public task (i.e. a task for the local municipality)? And should public toilets not be accessible for free, as urinating against buildings, city trees and in small tunnels is forbidden and can be penalized with roughly €40, not even to mention the fact that it is virtually impossible for women?!

In retrospect, citizens of Dutch cities pay a substantial amount of money in taxes to their municipalities and provinces. In exchange, offering a good and complete community infrastructure is one of the major tasks, that should be achieved with this tax money. Free accessible, safe and quite clean, public toilets ought to be part of this city infrastructure and should – in my humble opinion – not be left to commercial companies and shop-owners, who need to make a living from this activity.

And one more thing: under the relentless pressure of their spoilt, profit-hungry shareholders, the large corporations and large store chains try to get an ever-larger influence on our daily lives, at the expense of small, independent shops and restaurants and also of free public services.

Not only the ‘Witte Reus’-sponsored lavatory is an example of this increasing influence.

Think about all sponsored TV-programs or all TV-channels, owned by large corporations... And think about the genuine carpet bombing of commercials  that especially our children have to endure: not only around the children’s holidays, like ‘Sinterklaas” (i.e. Dutch Santa Clause), Easter and Christmas, but every day. This carpet bombing happens on the Dutch national children’s TV-channel and even more on the commercial channels, like Disney, Jetix and Nickelodeon.

Children are small, but influential consumers – through their parents’ wallets – that allegedly need to be mesmerized by the tinsel of the big corporations.

This commercial carpet bombardment makes my children think – especially my oldest son is very vulnerable for the message of the big corporations – that Lipton Icetea is much better than homemade icetea. And that Fanta is much tastier than house brand orange soda, which sells at less than half the price. Or that life without Lego, Play-Doh, Star Wars action puppets and the latest digital gadgets from China, is useless.

Where in the past the simple title ‘sausage roll’ sufficed for a breadroll with smoked sausage, sold at cafeteria’s and in amusement parks, this is nowadays called a “Unox” Breadroll, after the biggest Dutch brand of canned and processed meat owned by Unilever. And its sauce – probably a simple mixture of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup – is now sold separately as Unox Breadroll sauce.

This is the result of the fact that Unilever took over / endorsed large parts of the snack sales in large amusement parks and on public fairs. Independent snack sellers, with often excellent, artisanal quality chips (i.e. French fries), hamburgers and smoked sausages, are in fact expelled by the financial power and supply chain of the large corporations.

Philips (household appliances) worked together with Douwe Egberts (coffee), Nestlé works together with Krups (Nespresso coffee) and McDonalds works together with Mars and Unilever, on behalf of its icecream products, as one big, corporate, happy family.

Teenagers in this century might wonder how their parents ever drank coffee without having a Starbucks shop around and ate chips, sausage and hamburgers without McDonalds and Burger King in the neighbourhood. And last, but not least: what did their parents do without “free” online games and endless amounts of videos on the broadband internet? “Were you not bored to death, without all these possibilities?!”

A few weeks ago, I was having a reunion with a few friends and neighbours from the old neighbourhood where I grew up in my youth (see picture). While musing about the past and our childhood, we noted that we hardly spent time IN house in those years in the Seventies and early Eighties. There were no home computers yet, there was no daytime children’s television and no internet.

Reunion of old friends, living in Castricum
Picture courtesy of: De Zeehelden
Click to enlarged
So when you read all your books and didn’t want to go to the library again, you had to spend your time playing outside: playing football, street tennis, ‘kerbstoning’ (i.e. a Dutch game of throwing a football against the kerbstones of the street), shooting marbles, blowing paper arrows with pvc tubes and doing all kinds of gymnastic tricks with some spare clothes’ elastic of your mum. Or perhaps with doing some monkey business and (very) small mischief.

With the risk of being slightly nostalgic, life in those days was not bad at all and it was especially not so in the grasp of the large multinationals and corporations, like nowadays.

There were already large brands like Philips, Mars, Coca Cola, Unilever, Sony, Adidas and Puma, but these brands did just what they had to do and were not so forcefully incorporated in the hearts and minds of the people yet.

In those days Unox still made canned soup, canned meat and smoked sausages alone, Witte Reus produced relatively cheap detergent (and nothing more), Philips and Sony made televisions and radios, while Adidas and Puma made sports clothes and shoewear for about every sport there was, without making a fuzz about it.

Sports stars were not yet the living mannequins-with-technical-hairdo’s, that they are now today, advertising football shoes and sports clothes in every colour of the rainbow. And most American food, beverage and coffee chains were still a thing of the future in The Netherlands and beyond, without ever giving us the idea that we really missed something.

In those days, private shareholders were either old ladies with a nest egg or rentiers and retirees, who were happy and pleased with every dividend payment, without spurring the management for 20+% annual growth rates.

And urinating in public places? As a women, one could either go to a public loo, where it smelled like hell, or to a small café or pub, with the obligation to order something. And a man could always find a thick tree to candidly do his thing, as the police did not care so much about peeing in public in those days. It was not as nice and clean as today, but it was mostly free. 

Perhaps the current days offer more possibilities, but those days seemed to offer more really free choice, as a matter of fact, as the commercialization, “corporization” and “chainization” of The Netherlands did not go so far yet.

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