Making Progress by Crushing Dreams

Thursday, May 28, 2009
Dream Crusher

Last week I was in one of those meetings.  I was sitting with a group of talented marketing professionals, attempting to explain why their witty promotional ideas would never see the light of day.  That afternoon, I was Mya, Crusher of Dreams.

I got the chance to begin crushing another dream this weekend as I worked with a friend of a friend who has been putting an "organic" label on their food product.  Apparently inspectors had come around asking all kinds of questions about documents and procedures that she thought seemed a bit unnecessary.  I'm not an expert in USDA regulations, but it didn't take long to discover that "organic" is, in fact, a claim that demands some degree of compliance-driven activity.  Good intentions aren't enough.

Though I'm frequently the bearer of bad news, I have a lot of sympathy for people who feel crushed by rules and regulations.  In our business, I would love to provide a retirement plan for our employees that is creative and individually tailored to each employee's needs.  I can't do that, however, because IRS places strict limits on what we may and may not do in the context of a qualified retirement plan.  That's frustrating because I'd like to go beyond what is required... but I can't because I am constrained by the need to comply with rules intended for people with less benevolent intentions.  That stinks.

The thing is, I'm making a choice to offer a retirement plan that is tax-advantaged.  The food manufacturer is making a choice to promote their product as organic.  The marketers are working for a company that has chosen to pursue the lucrative regulated device market instead of the more liberal research market.  We have all made choices to participate in systems that work to our advantage. 

It would be nice if we could enjoy advantages of regulated systems without trading off the costs or consequences of regulatory complaince.   But when it really comes down to it, most of us know better than to expect this.  It's not just a coincidence that regulated systems are advantaged... in many cases, it is the regulatory environment that creates the advantage.

Claims are valuable primarily because they are meaningful.  If your ability to make claims about a medical product were constrained only by your skill with adjectives, marketing a medical device sure would be a lot easier.  But it would also be a lot less profitable.  When claims aren't held to a high standard, they are less meaningful.  It's frustrating when you can't claim something you believe to be true, but that same set of standards should keep your competitioin at bay, too. 

That's a good thing.  If you go to all the pain and trouble of creating a real product backed by evidence, it's painful to watch irresponsible parties claim to have done about as much with far less work.  Some dreams really need a good crushing in order for marketplace credibility to survive.

I still don't like crushing dreams.  Or having mine crushed, for that matter.  But in the end, we only really make progress when we manage to hold ourselves to some standard of excellence. 

Most of the regulatory activity I interact with boils down to one imperative: you must make a significant, ongoing effort to prove that what you claim as true is actually true.  Good actors can find such requirements burdensome, but giving bad actors broader latitude is a far worse outcome. 

I know I'm still going to feel like a Dream Crusher the next time I tell somebody that just knowing something about your product isn't good enough.  It's painful to do, but crushing dreams is important work.  When we crush dreams that can't pass muster, we create a more hospitable environment for dreams that can be translated into real, tangible progress.

Tags: Advertising & Promotion, Best Practices, Enforcement, FDA 101

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