Last month, visir.is ran a story with a headline tantamount to “Children in Reykjavík not allowed to get toothbrushes,” prompting a wave of major outrage on Icelandic social media. In the aftermath, we also learned that Reykjavík children had also been barred from getting bike helmets. Some powerful entity out there really hates children, it seemed…
Well, that someone is the Reykjavík City Council, which has determined that it will not allow the Kiwanis organization to hand out free bike helmets to Reykjavík’s first graders. The same applies to The Icelandic Dentists’ Association, which has been denied a request to hand out free toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss at Reykjavík schools.
An example of principled silliness?
It turns out that Reykjavík’s schoolchildren are being bereft of free stuff due to a very strict, no-exceptions policy regarding commercial promotions during school hours. The toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss were all donated by local importers for brands like Colgate, and so they all bear corporate logos. According to City legislation, any gifts handed out during school hours must be free of “advertising.” This has been interpreted to include recognizable, commercial brands.
Ok. That sounds great, but isn’t this just silly overreach? Dental hygiene and safe cycling are both really good causes after all, and it is difficult to claim anyone would be hurt by these gifts.
…and Icelandic national character
The debate surrounding this mini-scandal provides us with several interesting glimpses of Icelandic culture and society.
First, there is the response to the news. On the one hand, it was possible to note a certain element of frustration that some bureaucratic busybodies were stopping people from getting free stuff. Because Icelanders seem to love free samples and promotional giveaways. Anytime a given business advertises it will be handing out balloons or free hot-dogs, and you can expect half the nation shows up.
The other main theme in public criticism of the decision was that the City Council was endangering children: Who cared if bike helmets carried logos when children’s lives were at stake? And what about dental health? Why did those City Council lefties hate children’s health and safety!?
Won’t someone think of the children?!?
This reaction reveals an interesting feature of Icelandic culture: The go-to arguments all revolved around questions of children’s health and safety and other welfare-state discourses. Nobody even thought of bringing up the rights of the corporations in question and their entitlement to free speech, or how mean it was to refuse their generous gift and hurt their feelings. Despite all the supposed Americanization of the last few decades, it seems that no Icelander would say that “corporations are people, my friend.”
The annual cabin-fever scandals
The silliest part of the outrage is this: The gifting of branded goods or promotional items is only banned during school hours. Toothbrushes, or bike helmets, or whatever else, can be handed out after school with the permission of the school principal. So, why on Earth could this thing become a scandal in the first place? Well, it has everything to do with our shortage of sunlight.
During the darkest months of winter Icelanders begin to suffer from collective cabin fever. Christmas with all of its excitement is over and it’s still too early to get excited about summer. So, people search for something, just anything, to get excited about. If there are no legitimate scandals or outrages you can argue about with your co-workers, friends, family members or random strangers on the internet, we tend to make them up.
And the media plays its part by providing outrage-inducing clickbait headlines.
Magnús Sveinn teaches economic history at the University of Bifröst.