Our Man in New York: Invasion of the pink bunnies is making me see red

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The Independent Online

A plague of pink rabbits has invaded Manhattan. I first noticed them daubed on pavements a couple of weeks ago. Then, while exploring lower Broadway, I spotted an abandoned shop-front wrapped in pink banners and slogans - surely the bunnies' hutch.

Approaching, I found myself ambushed by young women in pink T-shirts and caps exhorting me to go inside. Their urgency was of the sort worn by campaign volunteers on the eve of an election. Sign their petition, they said, and I would be rewarded with a token of their gratitude.

Notwithstanding an anti-war march on the UN last Tuesday by thousands chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, the Bush regime has got to go", political protest is not popular with most young Americans. Quiescence is more their style. But with their Cottontail graffiti, these folk had grabbed my attention. I was intrigued.

"Lactose Tolerance Day," a woman explained, handing me a clipboard with a long list of signatures. Pardon? "Lactose Tolerance Day. We are petitioning for every day to be Lactose Tolerance Day." The earnestness of her appeal made discovering the truth of this ruse all the more acute. Let's just say that my "reward" was a bottle of Nesquik banana milk.

This is a rather wide-ranging campaign by Nesquik, owned by Switzerland's Nestlé. There is a web site too and pink-bunny ads flashing across video screens in Times Square. If Nestlé had released a swarm of real rabbits, spray-painted pink, in Central Park, I would hardly have been surprised.

But am I alone in being irritated? Are they trying to be funny about lactose intolerance, a condition that affects 50 million people in the US? Maybe their target was America's penchant for attaching one cause or another to every day in the calendar. But what Madison Avenue genius thought of this wheeze - an advertising pitch disguising itself as grassroots politics? And what possessed them to launch it when world leaders were in New York to tackle issues of actual interest to mankind such as Darfur?

If you are like me, you have a spam-filter on your e-mail. Mine is entirely useless; even today, I got a message from reply@ hairmailer.com - it was an ad from an outfit called Lactagen pushing non-dairy products on people who, you've guessed it, are lactose intolerant.

But spamming is not something that happens only on the internet. What my encounter with the centre-fold bunny girls on Broadway demonstrated is that you can be spammed even as you walk down the street.

A few weeks ago, I was astonished to see a breakdown lorry towing a car that had suffered a remarkable misfortune - neatly lodged in its bonnet was a dishwasher that had apparently fallen from the sky. Amazing, I thought, until I saw the same pair two days later and realised that it was merely a stunt to advertise a television show about freaky accidents.

Spamming the public might be traced back to the day before Halloween in 1938 - 50 years before the internet - when Orson Welles disguised his radio play adaptation of The War of the Worlds as a news bulletin, convincing millions of Americans that they were being invaded by aliens. "Good heavens" an actor playing a news reporter in a field in New Jersey proclaimed after describing a flaming object plunging to Earth. "Something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it's another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body."

Welles was pulling an April Fool on America, just on the wrong date. He wasn't selling a product, except for himself and his writing. To be spammed by Nesquik is much more galling.

Or by Bush. You may remember how, two years ago, his Health Department was caught filming fake news segments on his policies and distributing them to unsuspecting US television stations. Soon after came the revelation that Armstrong Williams, a columnist, was paid $240,000 by the administration to write and sell comment articles trumpeting the brilliance of Bush's education strategy. Nesquik dressed up commerce as politics and the White House dressed up politics as journalism.

As I left the lactose tolerance headquarters in a state of mild disgust, another irony occurred to me. I clearly remember, when I was a student in York, backing a boycott of Nestlé for foisting its powdered milk on new mothers in the Third World when breast-feeding was the only effective way to guard their babies from disease. Maybe another Nestlé boycott is in order, for persuading Americans to forsake plain milk for tooth-rotting sugared varieties - and for using bunny stealth tactics to boot.