Wednesday, January 11th, 2006

The dubious state of corporations and publicized goodwill

The dubious state of corporations and publicized goodwill
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My dad is an athlete. For many years now, he’s just been in love with sport, and as such spends any time he can running, hiking, skiing, canoeing, skating, kayaking, or mountain biking. He’s lean and tough. At around 5’6″ and 140 pounds, there’s nothing on him but efficient muscle. He just turned 61, and he’d kick the ass of the average 30 year old in any distance event.

I admire him in part because he takes care of himself in a way that I wish I had the commitment to mirror. More than that, I think I appreciate how happy he is about his life, and how he has found a way to make sport something almost spiritual. He seems more peaceful as a result of his activity, and enjoys how close he gets to nature through his efforts.

I’m no winner, but I sure did want to be

When I was growing up, I looked up to him for winning. For years, I remember going to events. In his age class, dad was rarely in any place but first; whereas, I was generally only in front of the kids who had DNS or DNF behind their names. Those acronyms are short for “Did Not Start”, and “Did Not Finish”. When I was very young, they would give participant ribbons to all of the kids–even the not so fast ones like me. Even though I knew I hadn’t performed well, I really liked the idea of being awarded with something.

In first grade I received the Citizenship award, which seemed quite exciting. I remember asking my mom what the word “citizenship” meant. Her description was very nice, but highly out of line with the reality of the situation. I was a horribly awkward child, and certainly exhibited no merits of citizenship; rather, the first grade teacher seemed to like me, and made the award possible. I don’t think it was long after, when I realized that I really had no claim to the award.

Throughout elementary school, I fell in love with the notion of awards, and was always left out of that loop. I remember kids at sports days with t-shirts covered in ribbons, and academic awards which rewarded those who had exhibited exemplary achievement. I silently sort of hated those kids. I had neither an athletic nor academic bone in my body, and envied those who did.

By the eleventh grade I had dropped everything but my interest in visual arts. I had wanted to become a “Commercial Artist” for many years, and through Keith Carlson, I had found an instructor who exposed me to the likes of Picasso and Francis Bacon. I felt at home in the art rooms. Heavy metal cassette after cassette spun through my yellow Sony Sports Walkman, while I was allowed to explore line and paint. It was my place, and everyone else in the room seemed to drift away, as I fell into something I really loved.

I still want to be told I did something right

At graduation, I maintained high academic standing and won an award for my commitment to visual arts. I felt rather uncomfortable with both of these distinctions, in particular, the grade point average, which I felt was inaccurately skewed due to the weighting of arts credits in my studies. I felt that with a course load of serious studies such as calculus and biology, I would hardly have scraped through. Sure I had done well, but my interests weren’t rigorous or demanding enough. My interests were soft, and at the time, I hardly believed they warranted any attention.

From that point forth, I remained suspicious of any recognition either I, or my work received. I always felt as though the recognition received was more due to being in the right place at the right time, or in being the only one in a particular competition. That being said, I still seem to think it’s great to be recognized for excellence. I can’t say that it will ever feel entirely unimportant to me to be appreciated for something I have done.

Most recently, myself and the others around the office have been interested in the distinction of being regarded as one of the best design firms in our community, and eventually the world. When we gain interesting projects, and have the opportunity to work with prominent clients, our work continues to become stronger and more diverse. Recognition for your work often gives you more access to these sorts of opportunities.

Design and advertising awards are a dubious thing. We continue to respect those who win them, and meanwhile challenge whether they are really worth chasing at all. In one respect, they can prove a great source of new business and recognition; on the other, these awards are clearly a game that people are playing. Big budgets, cool clients, and fashionable styles often take the prize over less flashy work, which is generally just as important. Perhaps awards are simultaneously necessary and pointless. We need to recognize quality work, regardless of how flawed the criteria may be.

Look at me, I’m charitable!

wristbandsAll of that said, I am becoming somewhat frustrated with how we seem to want to “self-award”, particularly when it is in an effort to build recognition and publicity. I recently read a piece in Details magazine which discussed the challenges presented by the LiveStrong wristbands. The writer presented the idea that although the reasons for the bracelets were great, copycatting of the idea seemed to be spiraling out of control. All of a sudden, imitations of this one great effort could be found on everyone’s arm, for any number of charities. He was not intending to distract from the importance of support/awareness for causes; rather, he felt it necessary to question why everyone needs to publicize their good will. His question was pointed at why we needed to parade our offerings of support–wasn’t the deed reward enough? (I’m paraphrasing, the whole article can be read here).

I had to agree with most of what the writer had to say. I’m all for doing good things, and truly admire those who continue to support groups they believe in. That being said, I’m not so sure that I am as fond of the trend to use goodwill as a self-serving or congratulatory device. Maybe I’m being overly cynical. Perhaps the wristbands are more about education than self-gratification. I certainly was taken by the idea when I first heard of it. That said, I’m getting a little weary of the need to talk about how good we are all being.

Companies who like to tell us how good they are

I’m even more disturbed when companies want to tell me how good they are. This point is particularly challenging to me, when a self-serving message of goodwill is delivered in conjunction with a logo and adherence to a visual identity. It’s as though some corporations are co-opting charitable causes for their own benefit. On one level, their efforts are admirable. They are supporting worthy causes. On another level however, I have to ask why a logo needs to accompany this sort of a drive, in particular if the impetus is altruistic in nature.

For the most part, I believe in capitalism; however, I believe in ethics and principles just as much. In my mind, selling your brand on the backs of a cause is highly immoral.

aldo fights aidsRecently, Vancouver (and many other cities I suspect) has been plastered with posters coupling an educational message about AIDS, with Aldo’s brand name. The ads feature some recognizable Hollywood faces, and talk about raising awareness about the affliction. These posters are specifically focused on youth, which seems quite in line with Aldo’s target demographic.

AIDS is such a mind-boggling catastrophe, that I can’t even grasp the gravity of its impact. It scares the hell out of me. I need to know more about it, and how I can help. I don’t really do anything to support AIDS causes, partially I think, because it just feels so overwhelming. I am of course open to the notion of being educated about the topic; however, I don’t need Aldo’s logo in my face as they purportedly work to “educate”.

I’m not saying that Aldo is doing this for the wrong reasons. They have clearly been committed to the cause for many years. I’m simply pointing out that it kind of feels that way. I’d ask why they couldn’t concentrate on the educational component of what they are doing, while dropping the layer of self-promotion, which seems so insincere. Why does Aldo’s name even need to be in the poster? Can’t they just focus on the importance of the message?

The incidents of corporations promoting themselves through the guise of some kind of good-natured conscience seem so ever-present as of late. For all of this effort however, it rarely seems to be any less transparent.

A double-whammy… bad, made to look good

active ronaldAs I flipped through the channels a couple of weeks back, I was greeted by an active Ronald McDonald. He was in spandex or something of the sort, and he was running around, talking about the rewards of healthy living. From what I had earlier read, this was part of McDonald’s effort to promote healthy lifestyles. I couldn’t help but see it differently.

After all of the hubbub surrounding SuperSize Me, McDonald’s was facing a PR nightmare. They were becoming today’s media villain, and was being (most accurately) perceived as the culprit in obesity, much like the tobacco companies had finally become recognized for their responsibility in a long list of ailments.

By squishing good old Ronald into some sports gear, they could imply that McDonald’s was in fact a purveyor of healthy lifestyles. It was innocence by association. If Ronald is happy, skinny, and active, the food at McDonald’s certainly can’t be bad for you. If this message were directed at adults, we’d all see it for the sham it is, but it’s not geared towards us, it’s targeting kids. Kids aren’t able to make these critical judgments.

I get awfully angry when I see an ad paid for by a tobacco company trying to help people quit smoking. Those images of cool and fun that they used to market their cigarettes are conspicuously absent from all of these spots. Instead, we see happy people kicking the habit without any trouble.

Again, they pull a trick similar to McDonald’s. These are happy, healthy people who choose to stop smoking. It’s no big deal, just a choice. The sun is out, everything is good, and the tobacco company is your ally. No one is hooked to a respirator, hacking up green shit, waiting to die, wishing they could have had the will to truly quit, even though they tried unsuccessfully a hundred times before.

They imply that smoking was never really that bad anyways; meanwhile, they are afforded the luxury of being seen as really decent people who are willing to support whatever decision you make.

The notion is perverse. Tobacco companies make money by keeping people smoking. If they wanted people to quit smoking, they’d reduce the nicotine content in cigarettes. That would never happen though. They don’t want anyone to stop; they just want to make it look like people really have a choice.

There are instances where corporations behave completely differently. Of course, there are a number of groups that make philanthropy a part of their business, and never publicize it. They do good things for the sake of doing good. Ironically, it’s hard to sing their praises, as they aren’t telling us about all of the good things they are doing, they are just doing them. I suppose they have that great feeling though, of knowing that they did something good, without any marketing or public relations agenda in mind.

Isn’t it enough to just do something good?

I recently read an article about a designer named Michael Osborne who runs the studio MOD. Through his work with Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance, he worked to educate youth in a village in Malawai about the dangers of AIDS, and how they could actively educate themselves about the disease, and prevent becoming infected. By using a number of t-shirts with a bold graphic and message, he found an effective and inexpensive way of spreading the word. The t-shirts for the effort were donated by Nike, without any mention of their name or placement of the swoosh.

I was sort of stunned when I read this story. Nike has (often rightly) become the target of much criticism for some of the dubious things they have done; nevertheless, it’s somewhat reassuring to learn that groups like this are contributing to a cause, without a need to promote themselves. (If you want to read more about Michael, and his work, the whole article is in the December 2005 issue of How Magazine, page 51.)

I’m a bad global citizen. I don’t do nearly enough for the planet I live in, or for the people around me, who are in need. I’m both embarrassed by that, and working to find ways where I can help make some things better. As such, I’m the last person who should be criticizing anyone. It’s strange though, every time I see another one of those Aldo billboards, I can’t help but wonder why no one’s saying anything.

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