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On Bullsh*t

Most vague, value-based statements from brands aren't lies exactly, but that doesn't make them good.

Nick recently wrote a post about the Civil Branding website and whitepaper. Here’s his distillation of the whitepaper’s argument:

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.


Real Beauty

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.

A message from Unilever mash-up by YouTube user Rye Clifton

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.

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.

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PaulApr 29, 2009

Comments on this post


It’s great that we have stirred so much debate. This is exactly what we aim to do with the Civil Branding effort in order to raise awareness on how to do things better.

You raise a number of important ideas and reference some worthy writers. We feel there are other ideas you also need to consider when thinking about how companies can do better.

[1] Consider the physical AND mental influence a company has on society.

It’s great news that we, as a society, are on a trajectory to create better, more responsible products and create them in more environmentally sustainable, more human-friendly ways.

Take a huge company like Nike. While a long way from perfect, they are working with leading minds and companies to create more sustainable products, decrease their environmental footprint and make fewer mistakes when it comes to labour practices in poor countries.

These are all acts to reduce damage on the physical environment (including we humans in this environment). However, even if Nike were able to become perfect in all these physical dimensions, they would still be doing harm on the mental environment with their communications due to their focus on a ‘winning at all costs’ message.

Civil Branding is not about dismissing companies that do bad things if they have a socially progressive message. It’s about encouraging companies who are on a progressive trajectory in preserving and caring for our metal environment. By focusing on the message, we can create another way to help companies improve the way they interact with and shape society.

It’s interesting to consider the case of the Dove ‘Onslaught’ viral in this light. Obviously, the people at Dove considered that Axe is another brand/company in the Unilever group of companies. However, they went ahead with this strong, activist message accusing the rest of the beauty industry of polluting young women’s minds with harmful notions of beauty.

If management at Dove, a multi-billion dollar worldwide company in its own right purposely went out to condemn companies like Axe and risk being labelled as a hypocrite, what can we suppose was happening inside the Dove company culture in order to make this possible? Whatever scenario one can think of, it is hard to see the case for Harry Frankfurt’s ‘humbug’ as described in this post.

[2] Consider the power of an appreciative approach.

It’s understandable why many people focus on negative acts that big businesses commit on both the physical and mental environments. There are lots of them and there are some pretty spectacular examples. However, we at Brandinstinct adopt an approach that focuses on the good that companies are trying to do in order to encourage them to do more of it and to eventually crowd out any bad acts.

This approach focuses on working from what we already know is successful and is much more effective than traditional ‘problem-solving’ focused approaches which tend to get companies stuck in naval gazing mode. It’s an approach that does not ignore problems, but it does not privilege them above all in setting a course of action.

As outlined in the paper, the central idea for Civil Branding is that messages put into society by a company should act as a window into the culture and internal actions of the company. This is an ideal for certain. But an ideal that we feel is worthy and that several companies have achieved already. It’s an ideal that will help unify a company’s actions and its message or promise to the market.

[3] Consider how important meaning is to the human race
We humans love meaning. In fact, we love it so much that we’ll attribute our own meaning to products that we appreciate and this meaning will evolve if we continue using them. Going to your argument about product communications needing to remain restricted to the benefits of the product itself, it’s important to understand that this is exactly how brands used to be presented in communications a mere 30-40 years ago.

Brands began as marks of quality and quickly moved beyond this one dimensional badge into more emotional territory, largely prompted by consumers. If a clothes detergent gets clothes whiter than the others, consumers appreciate this benefit and the ancillary benefit that it has on their family, enabling the purchaser/user to form a caring related narrative in their own mind.

FMCG companies like Unilever and P&G have made an exact science out exploring the ups and downs of this psychological ladder to define and redefine their brands over time. Dove is an interesting departure from this science because the ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ took the radical approach of moving away from anchoring the brand narrative to a product benefit.

Lastly, if we do not communicate outside the realm of product benefits, we are missing a huge opportunity as a society. The church and the state used to be the only legitimate voice in steering society’s values. Now, the media, including advertising, takes on a larger and larger role for raising ideas and debate that steer the course for society’s future. If we do not communicate ideas that are more important than product benefits, then we are losing a vehicle for increasing dialogue about what we should value in our society.

Aaron Shields at 7:49am on Wed, Apr 29th.


About Unilever and hypocrisy:

Unilever is an organization designed for one goal only, profit. Without that, it ceases to exist in the same way a person suffocates without oxygen.

Profit is a good thing, because 206,000 people who work for unilever can save money, raise families, and have a decent standard of living because of it. Some maybe even pay for their children’s design school.

To increase profits, unilever markets different brands to different people. They “segment” their market. Dove and Axe are two products aimed at two different markets.

Unilever is not being hypocritical by marketing Axe with one message and Dove with another. They are simply delivering the most profitable message they can for each demographic.

If Unilever took this article to heart, axe body spray ads would feature thick girls in white underwear, and sales to teenage boys would plummet. Losing money, Unilever would then downsize the axe brand, putting scores of people out of work, while getting the blessing of the press and pundits who have no real stake in the matter.

It’s because Unilever markets Axe profitably to young men, that the civil message of Dove for young women can actually exist. It’s like a person who has enough to eat now doesn’t need to steal your food.

Profits from oil allow BP to buy promising solar & wind companies, or fund alternative R&D. No matter what people say, solar and wind and huge money losers right now. Those industries exist thanks to our tax dollars. Oil, while acknowledging its long term environmental problems, and long term government subsidy via military adventures, is still the most efficient and inexpensive form of energy available.

So I think it’s great that there’s thinking going on about branding, and its effects. I hope these comments are useful in explaining some of the realities informing the choices large entities make. They aren’t trying to be hypocritical. It’s a survival thing, and I for one am grateful that the good messages are getting out there at all.

FrancoB411 at 7:32am on Thu, Feb 25th.


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