Buying Into It: Companies that "Care"
April 26, 2000
We Care. About the environment, about women, about kids, about a world without prejudice. Sound like something from your friendly neighborhood social activist group? Well, hereÕs a pleasant surprise: these platitudes come to you from some of the worldÕs largest corporations. And all this time weÕve mistakenly believed that they were in business solely to make a profit. If weÕre to believe the ad campaigns from Benetton, Philip Morris and Nike, to name just three companies, money is the last thing they care about. According to their ads, what they really want to do is to help each and every one of us fulfill our potential as human beings. Of course, buying their products just might help us reach our goals.How are these corporate entities taking on the cloak of moralityÑand why now? Join me as we journey to a place where image is everything and critical thinking is prohibited. Benetton or Bust? After years of using shocking images to somehow sell fashionable sweaters, Benetton went way beyond pushing the envelope last year by using a photograph of a dead Bosnian soldierÕs blood-soaked uniform in an ad.Oliviero Toscani, creative director for the Italian clothing company, claimed that he was simply using the advertising to try to put an end to war. Sure, itÕs possible to end a 900-year-old conflict with a single photograph. And what was the response to this shot seen round the world? How about this pithy quote:ÒBenettonÕs ad strategy is morally condemnable, legally untenable and economically extremely damaging.Ó This came from a spokesperson for ZAW, the German advertising agency trade association, because Toscani has finally done the unthinkableÑhis ad campaigns are now costing the company millions of dollars. Today, after years of stirring controversy in the guise of Òsocially awareÓ advertising, Benetton retailers are realizingÑa bit too lateÑthat kids buying expensive sweaters really donÕt care about Haitian refugees, nuns kissing priests or AIDS patients.ÒThe message seems to be ÔIf you canÕt sell sex, sell shockÕ,Ó says Jill Heine, a graduate student instructor in the University of New Mexico's sociology department. ÒBenetton is basically commercializing human tragedy and desecrating what should be considered Ôsacred images.Õ The ads play off the images of despair, a sense of hopelessness.ÓBenetton assumed that weÕd credit the company for being bold in its denunciation of war, racism and disease. (As if J Crew, by simply showing beautiful people enjoying their lives, was tacitly supporting war, racism and disease.)While the campaign continues its shock tactics, the united colors of Benetton seem to exist everywhere except within the company, with European franchisers and the parent company suing each other over the direction of the $80 million ad campaign. Benetton is suing for non-payment of merchandise and franchise fees; the franchisees say they arenÕt paying because the ad campaign is costing them millions of dollars in lost business. Sales have dropped between 30 and 50 percent, and the number of retailers has dropped from a high of 650 to around 450. (Of course, it could be that the clothes suck.)Besides losing sales and retailers, Benetton is having trouble in the courts. In France, Benetton was slapped with a $28,300 fine when an AIDS support association sued, charging that Benetton was exploiting the disease to sell a few more T-shirts. The court found that the campaign was Òoutside the domain of commercial activities.Ó Benetton is appealing the decision. Here in the U.S., retailers have tossed the campaign from Italy and hired an advertising agency in California to produce some spots to bring in the Ann Taylor and Banana Republic shopper. The ads feature real models, with nary a bloody uniform in sight. It seems that the 150 U.S. retailers understand that sometimes people just want to buy a sweater, as opposed to a companyÕs ideology.But donÕt despairÑweÕll soon be treated to a new campaign from BenettonÕs sports division. How about these images to sell tennis rackets and in-line skates: Jesus being crucified, German Olympians during the Third Reich giving the Nazi salute, Cuban boat refugees and, of course, the ubiquitous condom. No Benetton campaign would be complete without one. Up in Smoke ÒCigarette companies know more about teen smoking than anyone,Ó says Bob Rogers, associate professor of marketing management at the Anderson School of Management. And with that knowledge, they create marketing campaigns which portray them as concerned citizens whose sole interest is in protecting our children.Philip Morris, the king of cigarette manufacturers, is touting a new campaign designed to keep kids from smoking. It seems that they never wanted minors to use their products and were shockedÑshockedÑto discover that free samples, mailings and vending machines allowed children easy access to their products. Even though smoking is a health hazard costing us billions of dollars every year in insurance and medical costs, Phillip Morris has taken the position of being in fact a fine corporate and community citizen, just trying to provide a product peopleÑadults, actuallyÑwant.So, with the single-minded focus of a Shining Path guerrilla, Phillip Morris has created ÒAction Against Access,Ó a hard-hitting program designed to prevent boys and girls from getting their grubby little hands on a pack of smokes. The catchy slogan, Òthe best way to keep kids away from cigarettes is to keep cigarettes away from kids,Ó sounds like it was lifted from the National Rifle Association. The 10-pronged voluntary program provides such measures as posting minimum-age requirements in stores (which have been around since I was a kid) and making the clerk at the local Circle K more vigilant (maybe a free pack of smokes for every kid he turns away). Phillip Morris seems to have forgotten that better than half of the cigarettes smoked by kids are shoplifted. I suppose an educational program aimed at kids telling them about the health risks involved with smoking would never work.Meanwhile, Philip Morris Co. is flooding China, home to a billion potential smokers, with free samples, mailings and vending machines. Certainly no children way over there are going to try these products.So whatÕs the point behind the campaign? Rogers points out that Òall companies seek a competitive advantage to sell their product.Ó So if some legal smokers think keeping kids from getting hooked is a great idea and they buy some Phillip Morris products because of it, so much the better.If the Shoe Fits ... As Phil Knight, NikeÕs CEO, recently said, ÒItÕs all right to be Goliath, but always act like David.Ó Knight apparently forgot who killed who on that Middle-Eastern plain. Today, Nike is the undisputed footwear Goliath, with 38 percent of market share, compared to ReebokÕs anemic 27 percent. And the behemoth that is now Nike ($4.7 billion worldwide sales) is ready to use its slingshot.The latest spot from NikeÕs ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy, features young girls (Calvin Klein, take note) imploring the adults of the world to let them play sports because it will make their futures much brighter once they discover the pleasures of sliding home.Here, according to Wieden & Kennedy, are some of the wonderful benefits of sports: ÒI will have more self-confidence.ÓÒIÕll be 60 percent less likely to get breast cancer.ÓÒIÕll suffer less depression.Ó ÒIÕll be more likely to leave a man who beats me.ÓÒIÕll be less likely to get pregnant before I want to.ÓGosh, I had no idea lacrosse could do all that! As a general statement, you can certainly say that playing team sports can make kids better people. Out on the field kids can develop self-confidence, learn about teamwork and coping with defeat.But they can also take home some other messages: following rules, staying in the lines, cheating, mocking those with lesser talent and being traumatized by over-bearing parents. Regarding the statistics cited in the ad, perhaps a little trip in the olÕ time machine is in order, as recounted in Randall RothenbergÕs book Where the Suckers Moon. A couple of years ago, Wieden & Kennedy landed the Subaru account. Until then, the firm was known exclusively for its work with Nike, but this was its chance to show the ad world that it could handle other accounts.One of the print ads had a claim that the new Subaru SVX had 63 safety features. When the copywriter was asked where he got that information, he said, ÒI made it up.Ó Wieden & Kennedy lost the account after one year.And for all the talk of empowering youngsters here at home, imagine how empowering it would be if you were a young woman in Indonesia, making Nikes all day long in sweat-shop conditions for about 82 cents per day. ÒItÕs just a huge contradiction,Ó says Victoria Carty, a UNM sociology graduate student instructor, Òwhen you look at the advertising aimed at women here and the patriarchal message given to the Asian workers regarding subordination to authority and other issues.ÓTalkinÕ to You It all comes down to this: These companies want to create consumer desire. As long as companies and their ad agencies believe, whether because of sales, focus groups, gut feelings or simply because their competitors are Òjust doing it,Ó that selling a social angle will get them more customers, theyÕre going to do it.A company has a single, overriding mission: to make money. If they can use some of their profits to help out some people, thatÕs terrific. But know that the minute anything threatens the bottom line, out it goes. Something to keep in mind next time an image burns itself into your brain.