COLUMN: Actions speak louder than words — that goes for companies too

When it comes to marketing, companies like to pretend they are being socially responsible, but it only counts if the words are followed by action.

The culture of consumerism and capitalism tends to exclude minorities. Marketing to the people who never see representation is just a part of a bad system. However, when a company does show that they are progressive, it can feel fake. Corporations may be agreeing with the mission, but is the motive sincere? While this sounds like nitpicking, it’s important to be critical of how companies move in the public eye.

Companies shouldn’t receive brownie points for appearing to support statistical and marginalized minorities. Messages of support should be backed up with concrete actions they’ve taken to help solve the problem. The sentiment of being there for these communities isn’t enough. Without action, corporations are commercializing minority identities for the sake of expanding the consumer base.

When it comes to discussions of culture and marketing mistakes in recent history, PepsiCo feels like the natural starting point. The 2017 ad that featured Kendall Jenner as the bridge between minorities and the police sparked controversy by trivializing social rights movements. Pepsi responded to the backlash by stating, “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.”

The apology seems to cover all the bases of a corporate apology. After all, nobody’s perfect. However, this wasn’t Pepsi’s first protest-themed ad that flopped. In 2015, Pepsi made light of student-led protests and hunger strikes in India. After a public outcry, Pepsi explained, “At PepsiCo we take great care to ensure that our campaigns do not hurt viewer sensibilities.” Looking into a company’s past is an easy way to see if the statement is something they believe in or something they’re willing to invest in.

This logic is more plainly stated by Forbes in relation to a transphobic comment made by Ed Razek, the former chief marketing officer for L Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret. Rather than addressing the ethical issues associated with a lack of diversity, Forbes explains, “Razek also specified that there was little interest to include plus-size models in their fashion show … Victoria’s Secret wanted to market their products to their customer base, which according to Razek is not transgender or plus-sized people.”

They further explained, “Even though Razek indicated that Victoria’s Secret does not market its product to transgender or overweight individuals, by not being inclusive of these groups, they may be losing business to other retailers that are more inclusive.” Social responsibility has been restructured as a marketing tool, but that isn’t what social responsibility is.

In comparison to Pepsi, other companies may look good for having an attempt at a socially conscious ad that doesn’t go south. The only problem with that is people are accepting companies who say the right thing without visibly mocking social issues. An ad that doesn’t make light of a serious social issue, but barely mentions or helps a social movement is given extensive praise simply because they didn’t do as badly.

In January, Gillette released an ad that sparked a discussion about the male role in ending bullying and harassment. The ad itself is moving and feels like a shift in the way the world is thinking, and it deserves some recognition for that. While there is no way to be sure that change was implemented within their company culture, they did pledge money to non-profit programs that work to fulfill Gillette's motto, “The best a man can be.” While the timeline and amount of money they are offering is limited, they are still putting something behind their words.

Similarly, Audi released an ad that featured a father worrying that he would have to tell his daughter that she will be valued as less than every man she meets, but as she wins her race, he considers a world where he wouldn’t have to say that. The ad ends with the statement “Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work.” While the commitment to equal pay is important, Audi’s leadership board only has one woman on their seven-member board. They may pay female employees the same, but they aren’t giving them equal opportunities to advance. Equal pay shouldn’t be a radical political statement that receives praise — it should be standard. Showing that they are giving women an equal chance to advance would be worthy of praise.

All these examples can make it seem like it’s impossible for a company to ever be socially conscious, but it is possible. Lego announced that they wanted to accomplish two goals: make all the bricks sustainable by 2030 and get to 100% renewable energy in the next three years.

The promise may sound big, but in May, LEGO was already running on 100% renewable energy three years ahead of schedule. In 2018, they released their first line of sustainably produced blocks made of sugarcane plastic. Lego is proof that a company can make a promise linked to social progress, as long as they actually commit to it. The fact that Lego finished their 100% renewable energy promise three years ahead of schedule shows that they cared more about meeting their goal than just advertising it.

Social responsibility shouldn’t be treated as the next big marketing trend because trends fade and change all the time. Being socially responsible should be a commitment to make a company more aware of its influence in the world. Bragging about being socially conscious doesn’t automatically make you socially responsible, but pairing it with actual thoughtful and helpful action does. Marketing shouldn’t be a game of who can look the most woke. It should be a place where consumers are getting an accurate image of what the company stands for.

Edited by Bryce Kolk | bkolk@themaneater.com

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