8.21.2009

you can't find inner peace in a bottle (of iced tea)

One of my least favourite marketing techniques is the co-opting of language of people's movements and of higher meaning - decidedly non-capitalist, non-consumerist pursuits - to sell products.

It's not a new technique by any means. If you're old enough, you know Coca-Cola taught the world to sing "in-per-fect-harmony", and liberated women "had come a long way" because they had their own cigarette now, baby. But new or old, every time I encounter it, it irritates me.

The highway between Mississauga and downtown Toronto is littered with billboards, and these days one is exhorting me to "release the goodness" by buying a sugar-laden drink that is supposedly "enhanced" with "goodness".

Another billboard tells me to "Join the Revolution". Since it's a telecommunications ad, I assume that means the digital revolution. But some of us dream of a better world, and seeing that language in service of a giant telecom is depressing.

Even with my TV on mute, I know that using a certain brand of soap will bring me inner harmony. Using products that artificially scent the air - known perversely as air "fresheners" - also leads to inner peace. Shaving with a certain kind of razor unlocks my inner goddess. (Women only! Men who shave with such a razor will surely turn gay!)

Cars, apparently, are very nurturing. A few years back, one was "fuel for the soul". Another sold "the power of dreams," while its competitor brought you a "state of independence". Cars also deliver those most cherished of values, freedom and liberty. One vehicle is an American Revolution.

Heroes are great for business, too - especially those admired by young people with disposable income and only a vague understanding of what they stood for. More than one corporation has appropriated images of Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela to score marketing points. There's something particularly galling about that, given that each of those men understood the brutality of unchecked capitalism. Worse still, some of those images are owned by big media. So, for example, Apple might have to pay Getty or Corbis to use a clip of a civil rights march in an iPod ad.

We know that marketers stop at nothing to influence our purchases. Who would ever walk into a McDonald's if McDonald's told us what's really for sale? "Come buy industrially manufactured empty calories that will raise your blood pressure and cholesterol and make you gain weight! Contribute to animal cruelty and the destruction of the environment! Help kill local businesses and create lousy jobs in your community!"

That might entice the anti-earth-hour crew to eat McDonald's three meals a day. But in general, it's more effective for McDonald's to remind you that if you want to be hip, young and beautiful, you'll eat their product. Or if you want your children to be adorable and happy, you'll buy their product. Or if you like to support worthy causes, you'll buy their product. Or, most incredibly of all, if you want to eat healthy food, their product actually qualifies.

I know all that. I see it every day. I live with it. I complain about it daily.

But seeing the language of human connection and personal well-being used to sell crap... well, that just puts me over the top.

* * * *

I try to give generously to causes that matter to me, but I make it a point never to donate anything through corporate sales campaigns. There are enough holes for your money to fall into between your act of giving and your intended cause, without adding a corporate middleman. But more importantly, we shouldn't confuse consumerism with generosity. The two have nothing to do with each other. We shouldn't buy into the idea that buying products somehow benefits the world, or that corporations sell products for anything but profit. Corporate giving is important - especially when governments abdicate their responsibilities - but corporations should donate their own profits, not yours.

These corporate charity add-ons are becoming increasingly difficult to avoid, as companies clamour to demonstrate their so-called corporate good citizenship. I don't shop much, but this week I had several errands to run. Buying a charger for my phone, I was asked if I wanted to donate to cancer research. Buying sneakers, to Canada's Olympic team. Buying a map in a bookstore in Boston, the cashier asked, "Would you like to send a pound of [brand] coffee to our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan?" I said, "No, I'd like them all to come back and drink coffee at home, where they belong. I'd also like the military to buy the troops decent coffee." Don't worry, I was polite and friendly. I know it's not the cashier's fault.

Nowhere is this linking of consumerism and charitable giving more corrupt than in the campaign to raise awareness of breast cancer. The phenomenon is so rampant that it has its own name: pinkwashing. Think Before You Pink defines a pinkwasher as "a company that purports to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon campaign, but manufactures products that are linked to the disease."
Yoplait, for example, asks women to support the breast cancer cause by eating yogurt. But the yogurt is made with dairy from cows that have been treated with the artificial growth hormone rBGH. There are numerous health concerns surrounding the use of rBGH, and breast cancer is one of them. [Thanks to the pinkwash campaign, Yoplait no longer contains rBGH! Also note: Bovine Growth Hormone is not used in Canada.]

Car companies that encourage consumers to buy and drive cars in the name of breast cancer are also pinkwashers, as car exhaust contains chemicals that are linked to the disease. And, cosmetics companies that make products with parabens, phthalates, or other ingredients linked to breast cancer are pinkwashing when they put the pink ribbon on their products.

Of course, we all know about greenwashing. I always think of a line from Ab Fab. Saffy accuses Edina's "pop specs" - cheap plastic novelty eyeglasses - of being future landfill.
[Eddy points to her bag of "Pop-specs".]
Saffy: It's a sticker with a green tree on it.
Edina: Yes.
Saffy: What does that mean?
Edina: Kind to trees, sweetie.
Saffy: How are they kind to trees?
Edina: Well they ain't made of wood, how kind do you want!?

10 comments:

redsock said...

Who would ever walk into a McDonald's if McDonald's told us what's really for sale?

Salt, sugar and fat.

***

The theme of "choice" is also a big one for advertisers. If you have a "choice" of 35 different kinds of potato chips, then you are truly free.

parliamentshill said...

I was with you until the "support the troops coffee" one. Then, I was just amazed.

That's one I've never even heard of in Canada. Ah, what a blessedly naive life up here.

L-girl said...

I was with you until the "support the troops coffee" one. Then, I was just amazed.

Let me tell you, it shocked me too. I walked out of the store and said to Allan, let's get the hell out of this crazy country!

Dharma Seeker said...

Interesting observation about "pink washing". As someone who works/volunteers for a not for profit organization I know there is intense competition for the "donation dollar" so I was turned off the pink campaign some time ago. I felt completely oversaturated and that too many other worthwhile organizations were getting overlooked because they didn't have such a brilliant marketing machine (or the $ for that kind of campaign).

Dharma Seeker said...

sorry I guess my comment stemmed from my frustration that some charities become trendy, the "it" charity of the moment while others are left out in the cold. Clearly corporations are capitalilzing on what cause is "in" when they link it with their product. Which has in turn made me feel said charity has oversaturated the market which is a turnoff as a consumer. FAIL.

impudent strumpet said...

OMG, and the poor cashier has to say that no matter her political leanings!

Who would ever walk into a McDonald's if McDonald's told us what's really for sale?

Salt, sugar and fat.


See, that makes it sound yummy!

L-girl said...

DS, no need to apologize, you're not alone in that!

The worst part, to me, is making people believe that consumerism is anything more than consumerism - that there's an altruistic component to it. Or maybe the worst part is the people who believe that.

L-girl said...

OMG, and the poor cashier has to say that no matter her political leanings!

I know, it's awful.

And once again, we see that "support the troops" is thought of as politically neutral. Whereas if a store was asking, "Would you like to donate one dollar towards the Veterans For Peace campaign to Bring Them All Home Now?" they would be vilified as unpatriotic and aiding terrorism.

johngoldfine said...

This post--this is an essay, not a post!--but it reminded me of two things: Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language' is one, though this goes him one better by pointing out the sick confluence of our spiritual yearnings with consumerism, as opposed to devious language and politics.

The other thing is a remark of Nabokov's I saw somewhere. He talked about how the Revolution had destroyed the beauty of the Russian language. I didn't understand that when I first read it, but for years now I keep gathering evidence (as you do here) of ways the circumstances of our lives destroy our own understanding of those same lives in the degraded way we come to write and speak.

L-girl said...

As Orwell is one of my main writing heroes, I am quite abashed to find anything in wmtc reminiscent of him in any way.

Politics and the English Language is, of course, one of my favourite pieces. I keep one of the famous quotes from it taped to my office wall in big black letters.