Deflecting harm with positive advertising

The corporate equivalent of putting a tenner in the RSPCA charity box when you run a dogfighting ring at home

‘Who cares?’ is a great question for 2023

To the casual observer, one answer might be ‘every sodding company on the face of the planet’. Over the last five years, we’ve been inundated with corporate purpose-based initiatives, many of which are only tangentially related to the company that’s paid for them. On the face of it, these efforts appear to be a good thing. If cat food brand Sheba wants to restore a coral reef, who are we to argue? If investment firm State Street Global Advisors wants to put up a statue of a Fearless Girl, why would we object? And if Unilever, a giant conglomerate, wants to launch an empowering Campaign for Real Beauty on behalf of Dove soap, shouldn’t we just applaud?

That depends on whether those companies actually care about those subjects.

Sheba kills millions of fish each year to fill its tins of cat food, State Street Global Advisors agreed to pay a $5 million settlement to make amends for underpaying hundreds of female employees, and Unilever also makes Lynx, which ran the most sexist advertising in the world for over a decade.

So why did they create those delightful initiatives? Call me cynical, but I have a feeling that each one was an attempt to offset their negative behaviour with a big public message of positivity. Did they truly care about these subjects? I’m sure someone at the company or its ad agency did, but the idea that each one was a genuine, altruistic attempt to do some good is fanciful at best.

Look at it this way: if you really cared about fish, would you go to work for a company that killed lots of them? Of course not.

But the people who help bring about all that death might want to look a bit nicer and kinder, so they pay some money and help to save a reef, making them feel, and, more importantly, look like they’re lovely and caring.

Funnily enough, these purpose-based initiatives seem to have grown alongside social media

That might just be a coincidence, but it might also mean that the public’s newfound ability to discover information via the internet, then disseminate it via Facebook etc., means companies now find it much harder to keep their bad deeds from the masses. One way to compensate for that, or to get ahead of it, is to pay an ad agency to make you look good, then announce that goodness through your online spaces. That way, the naughty stuff gets swept under the SEO carpet, replaced by that lovely thing you did to save the whales/trees/impoverished. Ad agency staff, whose day job often leaves them feeling a bit morally bankrupt, also benefit, as they scoop up awards without having to do anything as tawdry as selling stuff.

It ends up being a win-win, with the company and agency looking better, and the recipients of their largesse enjoying whatever benefit comes their way.

But there is, of course, a substantial downside. This is the corporate equivalent of putting a tenner in the RSPCA charity box when you run a dogfighting ring at home. Many companies avoid taxes, mistreat staff, use vast amounts of the planet’s resources, pollute, and then lobby the government to make sure they turn a blind eye to all of the above. Sticking up a statue to ‘empower women’ is a great sleight of hand, sending our attention elsewhere and leaving the bad things unpunished.

Who cares? These days the problem is it’s hard to be sure. All I can suggest is that the next time you see a company doing something nice, you give some thought to what might be behind that action. They might not be as bad as I’m suggesting, but they might not be as good as they’re suggesting either.

Featured image: Martin Dalsgaard / Pexels

Ben Kay, Writer

Ah! The good old ‘about’ section. Time to decide whether to talk about myself in the first person or the third…OK, here goes: I’ve been a CD, GCD, ECD, Creative Partner and an agency founder (twice). I’ve worked on nascent start-ups and the biggest company in the world, and I’ve won dozens of awards and pitches. It’s been fun; it still is. It’s also been a fascinating series of challenges, from building creative departments to working with The Cookie Monster (surprisingly urbane).The older I get the more interested I am in the effect advertising has on the wider world. In 2017 I started an ethical agency and gave myself a very unofficial MBA in the moral questions advertising should consider within the conversations surrounding diversity, the use of global resources and of course the Climate Crisis. We still need to convey information on behalf of corporations and organizations, but we also need to be responsible for any secondary effects and unintended externalities that our work might create.Fortunately it seems that the acknowledgement of those responsibilities is becoming more obvious and more prevalent. If I can do my part in infusing that perspective into places where it can have a greater effect, so much the better. We all need to do our bit, and improved communication is usually the first step in making that happen.I look forward to getting more opportunities to make the kind of difference I think we’re going to need in the near future. And if, along the way, I get to work with Gonzo, Kermit or The Swedish Chef, that would be a welcome bonus.

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