Category Archives: Corporate Social Responsibility

“Real Beauty” and the Promotion Paradox

Marketers have long believed that effective advertising taps our subconscious to trigger emotions, motivate deeply held desires and offer messages of aspiration. If you want to sell basketball shoes, feature them on an airborne Michael Jordan. If you want teenage boys to buy cigarettes, then who better than the iconic Marlboro Man to represent their association with rugged masculinity and freedom? And if you want to sell lingerie, perfume or makeup to women and girls, offer up the idealized image of the Hollywood celebrity or supermodel.

In other words, product promotion aims to produce a consumer experience based on fantasy, feeling and fun. Product functionality — what it actually does, how it performs, its durability, etc. — is less important for the purposes of promotion than the symbolic values it connotes. Does what you wear, the car you drive, the food you eat or the designer drugs you take make you feel or appear independent, sexy, athletic, in control, cool, Canadian, or cosmopolitan? The objective of advertising is to fuse the symbolic attributes of a brand with the psychosocial needs and desires of the consumer. Because ads are the stuff of daydreams, they are carefully designed to manipulate our anxieties and appeal to our aspiration for a life that’s free of social conventions or constraints. “People are living lives of desperation,” says trends consultant Gerald Celente. “They don’t want to be themselves.”

Although the aspirational model of advertising is still dominant, its influence across product fields and genres has waned in recent years. In part this is due to a changing economic landscape. As the New York Times reports, the deterioration of the global economy has driven many leading marketers to abandon the fantasy model of advertising for a more populist feel – indulgence is out, austerity is in.

But it also reflects a cultural shift, a move away from the desire for fantasy toward, apparently, the embrace of authenticity. It reflects what some perceive to be a consumer desire for ads that feature people just like them doing the things they like to do. This is a shift born not just from hard economic times but, perhaps, from popular discontent with what the philosopher Herbert Marcuse called the culture industry’s system of “false needs.” The preference of some consumers to see real people in product marketing stems from a rejection of the idea that we might be so one-dimensional that a cleverly conceived marketing ploy, and not our capacity for rational decision-making, actually determines our purchasing behaviour.

Real Beauty

In some respect this cultural shift frames the context behind the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Launched in 2004, the campaign was premised on the notion of promoting a more “democratic” view of female beauty that eschewed fetishized femininity in favour of “real women with real bodies and real curves.” Dove commissioned research by Harvard professor Nancy Etcoff and feminist author Susie Orbach, which found inter alia that only 2 percent of women worldwide consider themselves beautiful. This was a powerful message and provided a unique marketing opportunity for Dove’s creative agency Ogilvy & Mather. Attention-grabbing billboards, print and TV ads, an interactive website, and a travelling photo exhibit, were the main vehicles used to generate and encourage a conversation that, Dove hoped, would not only lead to more progressive attitudes about female body image but also increase sales.

More than 1 million women worldwide visited the Campaign for Real Beauty website within the first year; the Media Awareness Network, a nonprofit organization in Canada that promotes media literacy, developed lesson plans for school teachers to talk about body image and the impact of the Dove campaign; the “real beauties” who were the ordinary “stars” of the campaign became overnight celebrities on the TV talk show circuit; Ogilvy & Mather was awarded a Grand Effie prize in 2006, a top industry award for effectiveness in advertising; and the campaign generated a considerable amount of earned media attention (and thus audience impressions). In the short term, sales figures pointed to a big win – according to a CBC report, the campaign generated double-digit growth for the brand in the second quarter of 2005. Dove sales rose 11.4% in the first quarter of 2005 and Dove’s total U.S. dollar sales rose 6% to $500 million.

Building on its initial campaign Unilever recently launched a new initiative called the Dove Movement for Self-Esteem. With this new program, the company aims to build “a world where women everywhere have the tools to inspire each other and the girls in their lives.” If the concept behind the first campaign was to challenge media misrepresentations of beauty, the successor campaign is premised on the notions of mentorship and capacity building. In this sense, the current program purports to represent a more tangible form of corporate responsibility by promoting relationship building and dialogue, not only with its consumers via product marketing but also through partnerships with nonprofit organizations and by recruiting third party endorsement from key influencers, such as prominent mommy bloggers.

Not So Beautiful

Despite the pro-social messaging of these campaigns, they have not escaped criticism. Advertising executive Mary Lou Quinlan accuses Dove of being risky and, from a sales perspective, ineffective: “If we’re all fine the way we are, we don’t need to buy anything. That’s not what marketing is about”.  In other words, if women feel perfectly content about how they look and feel, why should they spend their money on moisturizers, skin toners and firming creams? The point of beauty products marketing, Quinlan argues, is to convince people they want to look younger, have smoother skin, and look more attractive. Calling the Campaign for Real Beauty “a very expensive public service announcement”, Quinlan notes that after an initial bump in sales, profits eventually dwindled. This was a case, she suggests, of effective public relations undermining successful marketing.

Pursuing a line of cultural critique, Carleton University professor Eileen Saunders argues (in my co-edited media studies book) that Dove’s confrontation with the beauty myth may be effective from a PR standpoint, but it’s also less than altruistic. She critiques the premise of the campaign for continuing to reinforce the norm that beauty is a disciplinary project requiring women to treat their bodies as a work in progress: “the supermodel may have been displaced by the ‘real woman’ in the Dove campaign, but the beauty ideal she represents has not been displaced.” Saunders argues that we should be skeptical of the campaign’s “seductive rhetoric” because, in the end, the ability of women to attain real beauty is still located within the act of consumption. While Dove may be positioning itself cleverly “as a socially aware company whose feel-good values we can applaud,” its premise of democratizing beauty still “obscures the fact that we are being invited to vote with our dollar.” For Saunders, the campaign is not a case of “celebrating real beauty” so much as “telling us where we can buy it.”

A third criticism explores the hypocrisy of advocacy advertising in a global context. Nonprofit technology blogger Claire Kerr takes the Dove campaign to task in a series of posts (here and here) that coincided with the launch of “Dove Dishes”, an event which brought together prominent female bloggers and journalists to talk about the social pressures facing women and girls and to promote the Movement for Self-Esteem (you can track the Twitter conversation at #DoveDishes). Kerr is most unsettled by the fact that Dove’s parent company Unilever also owns several brands that aggressively trade on the unhealthy body image the Dove campaigns claim to target, particularly in other parts of the world.

If raising ‘global self-esteem for women’ was a genuinely important objective for Unilever, why do they run SunSilk ads telling [Filipino] girls that if they have dry hair boys won’t want to touch them?


How, Kerr asks, can we take seriously Dove’s belief that we should “imagine a world where every girl grows up with the self-esteem she needs to reach her full potential” when sister company Pond’s draws on highly racialized anxieties to promote skin-lightening creams to girls in Asia? How can we take Dove seriously, she asks, when it invites us to “imagine a world where every woman enjoys feeling confident in her own beauty” when another Unilever brand, Slim-Fast, so flagrantly preys upon the female body image anxieties Dove seeks to dispel? And how are we to take Dove seriously when it asks us to “imagine a world where we all help to build self-esteem in the people we love most” against ads for Unilever products like Axe deodorant, which objectify women as sexualized objects? Kerr argues that Unilever is deeply hypocritical and more than cynical for using Dove’s benevolent messaging to challenge the unrealistic body image ideals that it’s other product lines create and sustain.

Promotionalism As Its Own Problem

How do we come to terms with the gap between Dove’s progressive messaging and the criticism from marketers, academics and other observers?

Unilever has clearly been successful in using promotional communication to craft an identity that is both socially conscious and fashionable. Its strategy of using ordinary women to advertise its line of Dove beauty products, of partnering with nonprofit organizations and third party advocates, of commissioning research and hosting offline events, expands the meaning of both its corporate image and the cause it seeks to advance. Its products and brand name, its identity, and its activism on behalf of others (in this case, women and girls) all feed into the company’s promotional mix. The integration of its product marketing and business responsibility efforts allows Unilever to represent itself as a concerned corporate citizen promoting both community building and conversation as solutions to social problems.

The criticisms against the Real Beauty and Self-Esteem campaigns represent the reflexive character of corporate promotionalism. On the one hand, promotionalism is a solution to the issues of corporate communication and identity: in this case, helping a beauty industry company develop a unique and competitive market position while advancing a pro-social agenda that takes the industry’s own myth-making to task. At the same time, the criticisms discussed above also show that corporate promotionalism can “bend back” on Unilever in the form of new communication problems that result precisely from the side effects of its success. The success Unilever has achieved in promoting Dove as a prominent, socially progressive brand, is precisely what makes it a high profile target of critique. Its claim to stand for such values as individuality, self-esteem, confidence and opportunity for girls plays well in one part of the world, but these are values that appear less than genuine when other brands owned by the same corporation manipulate the physical and emotional anxieties of girls in other parts of the world.

Corporate promotionalism operates primarily in civil society where citizens exercise their agency as consumers. Will the side effects of Unilever’s success with its Dove campaigns create a marketing dilemma, affecting profits over the long term (as Quinlan suggests) or a credibility dilemma, as Saunders, Kerr and others (see hereherehere and here) argue? It’s difficult to know whether these critiques will have wider resonance — however, because corporate identity circulates in the public sphere where its meaning cannot be completely controlled, and because promotionalism trades on a currency of trust and credibility, both Unilever and Dove would be well advised to take them seriously.

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Greening Corporate Reputation

Canada’s agenda-setting newspaper The Globe & Mail yesterday memorialized Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962) as one of the world’s 50 greatest reads, praising its role in stimulating greater public understanding about science and helping to shape the modern environmental movement. I’ve been thinking a lot about the book lately, with 2 graduate students working on issues relating to environmental communication and one having just completed such a study. I read the book for the first and only time in a social and environmental studies course in high school. 

So it was more than a little serendipitous that within minutes of reading the review, a Google Alert came thundering through the ether to publicize two new reports: the first is the 2008 Corporate Social Responsibility Index, released by the Center for Corporate Citizenship and Reputation Institute at Boston College. Using data collected for Reputation Institute’s 2008 Global Pulse Study, the report evaluates the top 50 U.S. corporations in terms of their commitments to sustainable economic growth and finds that corporate governance, ethics and transparency are increasing in their importance to overall corporate reputation. An important caveat is that the data were gathered long before the market meltdown; as some analysts have argued, the downturn in the economy will be a true test of corporate commitments to sustainable business practice. 

The second report called MapChange was released by the Vancouver-based green marketing and brand management firm Change (the full report can be downloaded here). MapChange is a “perceptual mapping tool” that assesses how committed the top brands in Canada are to the environment, and how committed consumers think they are. In short, it allows brand managers to assess a range of possible reputational threats, whether these derive from specific stakeholder concerns, such as when activists demand that global corporations change their supply chain practices to limit carbon emissions, or expectation gaps, such as when companies fail to communicate progressive environmental practices to stakeholders, thus falling short of consumer expectations.

As the consultants at Change make clear, in the world of branding reality is a social construction: “what is real is only what is perceived to be real.” Communication is thus central not only to effective marketing but also activist criticism of brand performance.

Indeed, the report indicates that better action doesn’t necessarily equal better perception. General Motors has been regularly criticized for its sustainability efforts, but despite performing better in Actual Sustainability practices than its competitor Toyota, the latter has attained by far the highest Perceived Sustainability score (must be all those Prius product placements on hit cable shows like Six Feet Under and Weeds). The report also shows that some brands have benefitted from a “halo effect” — consumers of Apple products perceive the company’s sustainability practices to be much better (5th overall) than their actual performance (14th overall) — while others, such as Nike, have not been able to overcome the bad public images they accrued from past behaviour, despite progressive efforts to improve business practice (Nike ranked 17th on Perceived Sustainability, despite being 5th on Actual Sustainability).

It’s unclear what the future holds for sustainable business practices. The Wall Street Journal reports that on the heels of the market meltdown in the U.S., oil prices have plummeted because of fears about a global recession, a move unlikely to stimulate reductions in consumer demand for fossil fuels and thus the pressure needed to keep corporations focused on the triple bottom line.  In a recent column in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes that we should invest all bailout profits in green infrastructure to stimulate sustainable technology. Yet, if we believe the Financial Times, the economic crisis has made consumers worldwide less likely to spend their money on green products.

All of these mixed signals mean many things, not the least of which is that if you are in the business of green marketing, there is going to be a lot of confused corporations looking for strategic counsel and a lot of environmental activists with their radars intently focused.

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Corporate Responsibility or Gratuitous Greenwashing?

Let the countdown begin: it’s 3 days to the grand opening of the new California Academy of Sciences museum, a state of the art spectacle of architecture and sustainability. It’s truly an impressive achievement. Visit the website and you’ll see for yourself: a 2.5 acre “living roof” that’s home to 1.7 million native plants; insulation made from recycled denim; and a solar canopy containing 60,000 voltaic photo cells. These are just a few highlights. The main exhibit, “Altered State: Climate Change in California,” takes up the majority of the museum’s main floor and includes numerous interactive displays, such as the bones of both an endangered blue whale and a T-Rex. 

 

As reported by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, journalists who were given a sneak peak of the tour were informed by Carol Tang, director of visitor interpretive programs, that the economy and entire way of life in California “will all be affected by climate change,” adding, “the T. rex reminds us that mass extinctions have happened and we’re in a mass extinction right now.”

But alas, not is all well in the world of popular science education. In the build-up to the event, the Academy has been trumpeting the architectural and scientific achievements of the new building and feature exhibits. For environmentalists, however, it’s a program underwritten by a patron with questionable intentions.  It seems that “when visitors show up for the opening weekend’s festivities, they’ll be told they have Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to thank for the museum’s opening, which includes free admission on the first day.” According to the media release posted on the utility’s website, “[e]mpowering Californians with the tools and information to reduce their impact on climate change is critical to protecting California’s natural heritage. We’re honored by the opportunity to support the California Academy of Sciences as they take on the important mission of inspiring future leaders to create a more sustainable California.” Sounds like an act of nobility and corporate virtue. The news item advises that PG&E invested $1.5 million for the rights to co-sponsor, benefiting in return with post plenty of corporate signage, prominent mention in academy press releases, subtle plugs to journalists by museum staffers, and a spot on the five-person panel of academy leaders that addressed the assembled scribes at the pre-opening media tour.

These kinds of public-private partnerships in the arts are not new, as the cultural historian Neil Harris argues in his 1990 book Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America. Harris claims “the search for an enlightened American art patronage is as old as the republic itself,” and shows several instances where art and corporate power intersect. He also has a fascinating chapter on the link between museums and issue advocacy, which would no doubt fit in relation to the global warming education initiative involved here. The point is that big business has long lined up behind the arts and for various reasons — some of them noble and benevolent, and others quite deliberately self-serving. For the activist group Green Guerillas Against Greenwashing, PG&E falls squarely into the latter category. Noting the utility company’s ongoing efforts to block current legislation (The Clean Energy Act) and its legacy of lobbying against high environmental standards for utilities companies, the group finds the organization’s sudden support for public education about global warming a little too hot to handle. For PG&E and proponents of corporate social responsibility, the utility company’s sponsorship of this initiative demonstrates not an attempt to deceive or manipulate, but to link science and climate change education and to show that there are times when industry can mobilize its significant capital advantages to demonstrate environmental leadership.

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