Progressive Causes Provide Marketing Opportunities
What happens when corporations take on progressive social and political issues?
We've all had the opportunity to roll our eyes at the marketers who co-opt feminist principles in order to sell their products. "Take Control" hair gel and "Stay Free" maxi pads have the women's movement to thank for their product names. The concepts of power and liberation resonate with women because of hard-fought grassroots battles. The fact that they have nothing to do with hair styling and period management doesn't matter. The force and momentum of those ideas can be used to propel products into people's consciousnesses and shopping carts, that's all that matters.
Now we are seeing a new level of corporate interest in the progressive agenda. In a step that goes beyond product labeling, some corporations are selling themselves to consumers as significant players in progressive issues.
Here are some examples:
The 6-column headline in the Boston Globe describes, "The Greening of McDonalds," and the ensuing article reports that this seller of a billion burgers has been working closely with the Environmental Defense Fund to reduce its negative environmental impact. Now thanks to shorter napkins, lighter plastic serving trays, chlorine-free Happy Meal bags, and wider use of recycled materials, McDonalds is creating less waste.
Benetton, the Italian designer clothing company, recently unveiled its new multi-million dollar advertising campaign featuring (and you thought you'd heard everything!) death-row inmates. Starting at the end of January 2000, billboards and print media across Europe and the United States, include a single image of a real U.S. prisoner facing the death penalty, above a caption telling the name, birth date, and crime of Benetton's most brazen choice of models. The inmates aren't wearing Benetton clothes, mind you. They're all dressed in prison garb. But that's part of the point: the simple startling image creates a lasting impression that consumers will now associate with Benetton's logo. Will the ad make you run out and buy a Benetton sweater? Probably not. But the brand name will stick in your mind as being associated with an important social/political issue that raises deeply moral concerns that you care very much about. The advertisers hope that they've hit upon a cutting edge issue that will stick in your memory. The next time you're at the mall and come across a Benetton store, you might wander in. "Oh, aren't these the people that did those death penalty ads?"
In late 1999, Reebok and Mattel (among others) released independently produced audits of their factories abroad. Because of anti-sweatshop campaigns in the United States and elsewhere that brought attention to substandard conditions in Third World sweatshops, these corporations want to clean up their image. Producing "Codes of Conduct" that read like labor-rights primers, these clothing manufacturers come out in support of all the things progressives have been pushing for - the right to organize, clean and safe working conditions, a decent wage, an end to sexual harassment etc. Reebok's supposed improvements in foreign factories won accolades from the likes of Medea Benjamin, director of Global Exchange, a leader in that anti-sweatshop movement.
So what's a progressive person to do? Retire, of course. The corporations have everything under control. They've taken up our issues and they're doing a better job than we are of raising public consciousness. Think of all the struggling anti-death penalty workers and Mumia supporters who can take a break now that Benetton has thrown its millions into the struggle, and given death-row inmates a human face - more effectively, perhaps, than all our combined efforts, heroic though they may have been.
The fact is: the opposite is true. The more we see corporations taking on social issues, the more vigilant we should be. Of course there are benefits to McDonald's creating less waste, to Benetton putting the death penalty in the public eye, and to clothing manufacturers attempting to minimize their exploitation of foreign labor. Improvements are good. But environmental strategies, the question of capital punishment, and proper codes of conduct for corporations should be debated in the public realm - not conjured up and resolved in corporate offices. As Canadian writer Naomi Klein says, corporate codes of conduct may "place some restrictions on corporate behaviour," but "giving multinationals the power to draft a new set of global labour and human rights declarations actually hands them an unprecedented kind of power - the power over rights which were once in the public domain."
When Naomi Klein traveled around Indonesia and the Philippines interviewing sweatshop workers, she found that many workers had never even heard of the codes of conduct, and that those who had did not understand them. Poengky Indarti, a lawyer at an Indonesian legal aid institute, interviewed workers at Reebok factories, and discovered that although many knew of the codes and saw them posted in the factory, they were too intimidated to read them because they felt that security guards were keeping watch and would report their activity. Many felt that they would be dismissed if they demanded that the codes be implemented. Clearly, the codes are not meant for the workers. They are meant to placate U.S. consumers who, in grassroots campaigns, have expressed outrage about sweatshop conditions, and made it clear they care about exploitive labor practices.
One of the lessons we can take from seeing corporations move in on progressive campaigns is that we are on the right track. Our issues and concerns matter to people. They matter so much, in fact, that corporations want to at least portray themselves as caring about our values. As Stephen Duncombe writes in his excellent article in the December Z about corporate appropriation of zine culture, the reason Nike produces a home-grown, countercultural basketball zine is because they want to create an association between a brand and "something cool [kids] can get into, that is, a genuine grass-roots alternative culture." There are even trend-watchers, Duncombe reports, who "track the movements among these progressive mind-sets and interpret them into actionable opportunities for marketing "
Another lesson is that while winning improved conditions is better than not, altering power relations is even better. We must make room for democratic voices to resolve workplace issues, moral and political concerns, and environmental stewardship. Corporations want control. Corporations do not want citizens to participate in determining political outcomes. One way to achieve these aims is to fill up public space and dominate public debate, thus squeezing out what small forums people may have for participating in a democracy. Corporations want more than to fill our shopping carts, they want to weaken democracy so that we cannot bring our collective power to bear on them.
While it is testament to our relevance that the trend-watchers are tracking progressive movements, it's also a reminder of just how dangerous democracy is for capitalism.