When Social Marketing does more harm than good

My wife, Amy and I were watching TV the other night, and a series of commercials came on that told me a lot about who the sponsors of the show thought I was. First, there was a Pepsi ad for this program they have where they give “grants” to people with good, community-changing ideas. Second was a Sun Chips commercial touting their new compostable packaging.

I remarked to Amy about how prevalent this kind of social marketing had become, and did so with no small amount of disdain in my voice, I expect, based on the way she looked at me.

Basically, it’s popular these days for companies to tout their social responsibility to help persuade you to buy their product. From Sun Chips (owned by junk food giant Frito Lay) to Pepsi, and even Coke with their “every time you drink our sugary, caffeine-laced soda, you’re participating in worldwide recycling” promotion, everyone wants to get in on the action. Of course, food and beverage manufacturers aren’t the only one’s getting in on the action. Car manufacturers, clothing designers and all manner of retail chains try hard to give you wamr fuzzies about their products.

On the surface, I know it seems cynical to grumble about companies trying to be socially responsible, even if it only is to better their bottom line. After all, if the result is the same, who cares what their motivation really is, right? But the concern I have hearkens back to my time-tested theory about capitalism at the consumer-level, which is that companies try hard to make us feel good about buying their stuff, and we agree not to ask too many questions, because we’d rather feel good (even if falsely or superficially) about getting what we want rather than doing the hard work of digging deeper for truth and – God forbid – maybe having to sacrifice some wants for our ethics.

First, we should never take a company at their word that what they’re doing is good for us or the planet. As an example, here’s a recent mention about Sun Chips’ installation of a ten-acre field of solar panels to help operate one of their factories, for which they won an “Effie.” This award, it turns out, is not an environmental award, but rather an “effectiveness in marketing” recognition. This from Effie’s website:

On Earth Day 2008, Sun Chips’ factory in Modesto, Calif., opened a 10-acre solar grid so that Sun Chips would be made with solar energy. However, the brand’s users were not hard-core green consumers, and they didn’t care to hear about the details. They just wanted to know they were doing something a little better.

I’m not saying this move to solar is a bad thing, but there are a few questions I’m left wondering about (though evidently, the marketing folks are clear that the general population doesn’t really care):

What percentage of the factory’s total consumption is generated by solar?
Was this part of a government mandate for communities/companies to get certain percentages of their energy from renewable sources, or was it voluntary?
Does the company have any standards for their suppliers and the way they grow, harvest and transport their products?

In short, the idea is to find out if this company seriously is committed to the values they’re promoting, or if it’s simply a photo-op. Before we give ourselves pats on the back for being responsible consumers, we should try to find out.

Second, and perhaps more important, I have concerns that we allow companies who engage in this kind of social marketing to assuage our guilt for our way of life, allowing us to feel like we’ve done our good deed simply buy buying a soft drink or eating chips. Yes, guiding our dollars to more responsible outlets is an important thing to consider, but this doesn’t let us off the hook as human beings, responsible for the care of ourselves, our fellow human beings and the planet. It’s not unlike how some folks figure they don’t have to work hard at making the world a better place all week long, just because they go to church on Sunday.

If the companies we support truly are walking the talk, and if we can verify this, more power to them, and more power to us to support their efforts with our money. And if guiding our purchases in such a way is simply a reflection of a greater effort in all parts of our lives to do right by ourselves and our world, that’s great.

But let’s not fool ourselves; just because we drink Fat Tire instead of Miller Lite or buy our gifts from 10,000 Villages doesn’t mean we don’t have a hell of a lot of work left to do.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://www.fieldofdandelions.com Danny

    It’s true that buying Sun Chips or Fat Tire isn’t going to save the world. On the other hand, isn’t the “big work” that we are called to do made up of countless “little works?” If someone invites you over to watch the NCAA finals, and you ask, “What can I bring?” and they say, “Bring some beer and chips,” isn’t bringing your chips in a compostable bag better than bringing chips in a plastic bag that lasts forever? A company that’s moving in the right direction is better than one that isn’t, even if it still has a long way to go. In the whole scheme of things, having a compostable bag, or installing a few solar panels, isn’t a huge achievement, but it is still an achievement. We can celebrate the little things, too.


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