Most vague, value-based statements from brands aren't lies exactly, but that doesn't make them good.
Branding is a form of mass-communication. For better or worse, choosing brands is how we express which ideas we think are important. Therefore, marketers should encourage companies to adopt and promote progressive values in order to build a better society.
His argument against so-called civil branding is old hat for BlogLESS readers: Brands in fact shouldn’t make vague, value-based promises in their advertising because in the best case they can’t possibly keep them. He also noted that in many cases, these promises contradict a company’s actions.
Putting a finer point on the latter case, Nick brought up a ludicrous set of recent advertisements for Citibank, who now promote their company using the notion “that there is more to life than the pursuit of money.” Nick notes that Citibank hardly has the moral authority to make such claims: “That’s a great sentiment, but it’s hard to take seriously from a company that skims money from it’s customers’ accounts and takes unacceptable risks with their funds – all for the sake of making as much money as possible.” I made a similar point in November to a PR person from oil multinational BP whose recent branding upgrade situates them “beyond petroleum.”
The individual who wrote the Civil Branding whitepaper responded to Nick’s concerns in the comments, suggesting that by merely putting forth “progressive messages,” companies are taking on an ethically “constructive” role in society.
This idea is not only credulous, it’s dangerous.
Consider Civil Branding’s flagship exemplar of a “progressive message” from a multinational company: Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. This campaign is decidedly mild in ambition next to the Citibank and BP campaigns, but it’s worth considering. After all, it’s easy to put your finger on what’s wrong with Citibank or BP.
Dove’s message in this campaign is that the beauty industry is unhealthy for the self-esteem of little girls. Since this is undoubtedly true, if there’s anything wrong with this campaign, it isn’t that Dove is just lying to us. They’re not explicitly asking us to believe something that we know is false. Rather, they’re telling us the truth: Body image should be a deep concern for parents, given the state of the beauty industry’s advertising. So where’s the problem?
Since we all agree with its message, it is undoubtedly useful for the Dove brand to be strategically aligned with this value. The tacit message that underwrites this campaign, then, is that Unilever (Dove’s parent company) understands the problems of young girls in a body-obsessed culture, cares about them, and is committed to addressing them (in this case, by providing Dove-branded self-esteem materials addressed to girls).
At this point I should note that Civil Branding itself clearly indicates that this tacit message is false. While Unilever on the one hand promotes self-esteem to young girls, they simultaneously produce the Axe body spray commercials, some of the most blatantly exploitative and chauvinistic ads this side of Maxim magazine. Whatever this weird contradiction is, it isn’t organizational commitment to a value.
It strikes me as very strange that one could see this contradiction, indicate it in print, and still applaud the campaign. Ever since I read this, I’ve been asking myself how Civil Branding might be able to justify the idea that the explicit message is still admirable.
The best answer I could come up with was this: It’s better for our world when corporations use their power to promote these values than it is when they don’t. That doesn’t strike me as true, but at least it’s coherent. To understand why I don’t think it’s true that this is the case, let’s try to determine what the messages used in so-called civil branding are, exactly, if they’re not outright lies.
I had an intuition about this, and in following it up, I grabbed my copy of a newish little book by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt called On Bullshit.
First, I thought, civil branding might be based on instances of what he calls humbug. Humbug “is not designed primarily to give its audience a false belief about whatever state of affairs may be the topic…its primary intention is rather to give its audience a false impression concerning what is going on in the mind of the speaker.” That seems to be a pretty likely candidate in the case of Dove. Since Unilever’s actions don’t substantiate its claims, it seems relatively likely that the Campaign for Real Beauty is a big steaming load of strategic humbug. And the messages of a humbug are meaningless. I’ll talk about this a little bit more on Friday.
However, it’s pretty hard, as that BP PR adviser suggested to me, to pin a corporation down on motivation. You can impugn, but hardly conclusively prove something like bad motivation on behalf of every individual relevant to a campaign. That said, even if some people at Unilever or Dove or the advertising agency that made the video do care about this value (and I’m sure some of them do) — even if it’s not humbug up and down the line — it’s still bullshit.
What is bullshit? As opposed to humbug, which has a directly adverse relationship to the truth, bullshit is just not concerned with truth in any way. That is, bullshit is simply not germane to the enterprise of describing reality; it is indifferent to the way things really are.
Note that this has to be the case for any attempt at “civil branding” by a company whose product doesn’t have an explicit civil dimension. A brand is just the image a company wants to present of itself to its consumers. It is a set of guidelines that determine which kinds of promises it can or should make in the messages that it uses to sell you its products. As soon as it makes a promise about something other than the characteristics of those products, you’re just bullshitting. Any statements that an advertisement makes about anything but what it’s trying to sell you are categorically bullshit. They are just not concerned with the reality at hand (the product).
And the idea that we should somehow be happy about this corporate bullshit strikes me as silly. As far as I’m concerned, there are no two ways about it: we should demand better.
|Tagged with:||Advertising, Branding, Bullsh*t, Civil Branding, Design Ethics, Dove, Humbug, Lies, Posts with Swears in Them, Promises, The Brand-Reality Corollary, Unilever|