Terra Incognita: Corporate world's new marketing strategy

There is something suspicious about how the new socially conscious ad campaigns play on our society’s stereotypical charitable views

In the Seinfeld episode “The Airport,” Jerry meets a model and she shows him a recent photo of her that appeared in Esquire where she is mostly nude, having just stepped out of a shower. It turns out the ad is for jeans. No surprise. We all know the mantra that “sex sells.”
Advertising companies have long realized that the main subject of an ad need not be the product. Watch companies show images of Mount Everest and sailing. Other firms pitch you a lifestyle that goes along with a product. From time to time, oddly, some products are actually marketed through ads that declare them to be the best; Oracle claims it has “the fastest ever database performance.”
But there is a new trend in advertising that, while it may not be sweeping the world, is becoming more pronounced. It is the “socially conscious” ad campaign. In a fold-out ad by Du Pont on the inside cover of the recent issue of National Geographic, the reader is shown an Indian train packed to the gills. The ad was specially designed for the January issue, whose main article was about “Population 7 billion: How your world will change.”
Lo and behold, we learn that Du Pont “has a rich history of scientific discovery that has enabled countless innovations and made life better for people everywhere.”
The company, it turns out, is not only making “higher quality food available,” it also plays a role in the body armor that has saved “more than 3,000 law-enforcement lives.”
It is not clear what connects any of this to the people on the train, but somehow the idea is that Du Pont is helping them.
IN THE latest issues of The Atlantic and the Economist are ads featuring a middle-aged African woman. It turns out that Chevron “helped thousands of entrepreneurs get ahead with microloans.”
This woman, whose emphatic stare takes up half the page, must be one of the beneficiaries, although we aren’t told how. The Chevron’s slogan is “Big Oil should support small business.”
But this isn’t the most egregious play on the social consciousness of the reader. That award must go to British Airways, which claims “the best part of giving soccer balls to kids in Africa is seeing the look on their faces.”
What is British Airways’ connection to this? It isn’t clear. The ad claims that “last year at British Airways, we put hundreds of small business owners in front of the people they needed to see – for free.”
And somehow this is connected to Tommy Clark, Grassroots Soccer founder, who “uses soccer balls to teach kids in Africa about AIDS.” It doesn’t really matter what exactly British Airways’ involvement is, because the ad alone draws you in.
Every well-meaning person wants to portray him or herself as saving Africans. Let’s be honest, we all know the photos of NGO projects, volunteer abroad programs and anything connected to “save children” has a smiling African kid, usually posing with a white person who has “saved” him.
So these new socially conscious ad campaigns play on our society’s stereotypical charitable views. There is definitely something suspicious about them. Who decided that disguising an oil company or an airline as a promoter of aid to Africa, and putting smiling African kids or women prominently on display would be good for business? The companies don’t really seem to be giving aid; they are claiming that somehow, by helping “small business” or inventing new products, their revenues are trickling down to benefit people.
And this brings us to the last problem with all this socially conscious advertising. It’s ridiculous. I should want to fly British Airways, not because it makes me feel that I, in some tortured roundabout way, am putting smiles on African AIDS victims’ faces, but because it is a better airline. I should go to a Chevron station because it offers cheaper and better gas, not because it supposedly supports a small business in Kenya.
There is something to be said for not buying from companies that are particularly heinous in their treatment of people or the environment. But the latest craze is all part of an elaborate scam. BP rebranded itself as “green” in 2000, when it replaced it’s stodgy shield with a green “helios” or sun logo. In 2008, Greenpeace UK awarded BP the Emerald Paintbrush award for “greenwashing” its image. Greenpeace spokesman James Turned noted: “You wouldn’t know it from their adverts, but BP bosses are pumping billions into their oil and gas business and investing peanuts in renewable [energy].”
The logo became even more embarrassing with the huge BP spill in 2010. A website called Climagegreenwash.org is now devoted to tracking companies that fake their environmentalism.
What concerns me isn’t the lack of corporate social responsibility; a company’s duty is to its shareholders, customers and employees. What is most annoying is that this is just part of a larger picture of misleading sloganeering. Whether it is President Barack Obama’s platitudes and lack of policy (he won the Nobel Peace Prize just for giving us “hope”), or all the lying NGOs who pretended to be helping Haiti but merely served as outlets for unemployed Europeans to do well-paid charity work, the new motto is “put an African child in the photo and feel good about yourself.”
NGOs don’t help Africa, and neither does British Airways, and yet we feel better about ourselves for choosing to fly BA and throwing a few cents at the Red Cross, buying a book that is printed on “green” paper and then eating some nonsense “organic” meal.
From one lie to the next we go through each day. Socially conscious advertising is just the tip of the iceberg.