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George A. Makrauer
June 14, 1999
It would be an easy solution if William Patient were completely right that the truth is vinyl's best defense (May 3 Perspective, Page 6). Unfortunately, the truth will not, by itself or soon enough, quell consumer and national marketer fears that vinyl harms health, the message planted continuously by the enviromaniacs at Greenpeace and their ilk.

The American Plastics Council's visually powerful television spot about emergency treatment for a heart attack demonstrates vinyl products' obvious benefits in health-care delivery and lifesaving, as it impresses and reassures viewers about the benefits of plastics.

From a vinyl perspective, however, the spot falls short by not making clear that vinyl saves lives. Viewers don't know, because they are not told, that vinyl is an important, beneficial, lifesaving plastic that good health care depends on.

Problem is, when the word vinyl is shouted at consumers, it comes only from the orifice of Greenpeace. That's why vinyl is feared as a health-scare threat, not a health-care provider.

The image problem for vinyl is different from the former image challenge faced by polyethylene plastic bags and "Styrofoam'' plastic clamshells and cushion packaging. The attacks on those items were product-directed, not material-related. The untruths promoted were a shortage of landfills and a profligate waste of nonrenewable resources by a convenience-oriented, unsustainable society.

Polyethylene and expanded polystyrene foam never entered the consumer-battle's lexicon; it was simply a paper-vs.-plastic war.

The smear against vinyl is different. At its start, it's a logical maturation of the anti-plastics wars. Today in the United States, no informed consumer is naive enough to fear landfills or to avoid convenience to the point of shunning plastic packaging. But, the untruths about vinyl strike an importantly different chord than mere guilt about landfills and personal convenience.

The specter of any material harming the health of children as a toy has unique message elements to it.

Truth alone won't solve the plastics industry's vinyl problem. Neither will the thoughts of some industry trolls who would just as soon see vinyl move to its own industry conclave and issues. Even if vinyl were to go its own way, the industry problem would not go away. A key part of the undeniable truth is that consumers and buyers won't, because they can't, distinguish vinyl from other plastic materials. "You've seen one, you've seen them all,'' is a particularly important part of managing this material's image.

Truths about vinyl must be solidly documented and simply communicated. But those truths alone are not vinyl's best defense, any more than the truths about plastic bags or polystyrene. Their best defense was a strong offense, based on good data and a major commitment by industry to disseminate accurate messages and to maintain them in the face of continuing environmental and competitive-industry attacks.

Vinyl's best defense is yet to be seen, but it has to include a strong offense.

Makrauer is president of ComAd Management Group Inc., a business management and consulting firm in Treasure Island, Fla.

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