Archive for the ‘brands’ Category
Racism is one of the last things any company wants to be accused of. Of all the kinds of corporate wrongdoing, racism is one of the hardest to defend against. For one thing, there’s not much “on the other hand.” It’s not like child labour, where you can say yeah, it’s unfortunate, but on the other hand these kids really do need the income. Racism is just bad, with no upside. The other problem is that racism (or at least accusations of same) can arise without anyone having racist intentions, let alone racist corporate policies.
See, for example, this story, by Mark Sweney for The Guardian: Cadbury apologises to Naomi Campbell over ‘racist’ ad:
Confectionery giant Cadbury has apologised to Naomi Campbell after the supermodel claimed an advert comparing her to one of its chocolate bars was racist.
The advert for Cadbury’s Bliss range of Dairy Milk chocolate bars used the strapline “Move over Naomi, there’s a new diva in town”….
Now, the ad isn’t necessarily racist. Campbell certainly is a diva (in the negative sense of that word) regardless of her skin colour. The word carries connotations of success, popularity, and glamour, as well as (more recently, I think) more than a touch of spoiled brattiness. Campbell certainly fits the bill, and so it wouldn’t be surprising if any ad using the word “diva”, regardless of what it is advertising, referred to her. And, as a matter of logic, to say that both Campbell and a chocolate bar are in the same category (i.e., “diva”) is not to say that Campbell herself is a chocolate bar. So I suspect the intention probably wasn’t racist, even in a passive, thoughtless way. But who knows what the ad’s makers were thinking? Maybe it really was a reference to ‘chocolatey skin,’ the kind of reference that, like many other racial terms or allusions, is probably best left for self-referential use by members of the relevant groups. Anyway, the perception that the ad was racist is there, and that’s enough: enough both to result in genuinely hurt feelings and to generate a serious PR problem. So yes, it’s good that Cadbury retracted the ads.
You’ve got to wonder how it is that all the smart people at Cadbury (including their PR department) and at their ad agency (Fallon), didn’t see this coming. Surely someone there must have realized that this is dangerous turf. Why didn’t someone raise a red flag? Is the “can-do” attitude there so strong that no one had the sense to say “wait a minute”? One way or the other, this case raises issues about corporate culture, whether in terms empowering employees to speak up, or, as Campbell herself rightly suggests, in terms of fostering diversity (of all kinds) at the level of senior management.
Finally, it must be somewhat galling for Cabury to be lectured to by Naomi Campbell, queen of disreputable behaviour. Ms Campbell’s own history of questionable behaviour doesn’t rob her critique of its force, but I guess it does make her something of an expert on the offering and timing of public apologies.
I blogged nearly two weeks ago about the Ethics of Doing Business in Libya. The concern there was about the ethics of involvement in Libya by, well, “businesses” in the traditional, i.e., corporate, sense of that word. But the controversy that emerged short after that, and that continues still, concerns high-profile members of the entertainment business — celebrities like Usher, 50 Cent, and Mariah Carey. Basically, it has come to light that a whole fistful of such stars have, at various times, done private concerts for members of the Gadhafi family. And now, in light of the continuing violence in Libya, most of those stars are expressing regret and doing things like donating the money to charity. (For details, see Public consequences of pop stars’ private gigs, by By Reed Johnson and Rick Rojas for the Los Angeles Times.)
A few people have pointed out that the timing of the celebs’ crisis of conscience is just a little bit off. Libya has been a dictatorship for decades, and its leader has been a vicious madman just as long. As Tim Cavanaugh wrote on his blog at Reason, “Even assuming Qaddafi is so toxic you can’t with sound conscience take his dinars, that didn’t just become the case a few weeks ago.” If it’s right to give the money back now, it was likely wrong to take it in the first place.
But we can also question whether anyone does, or should, give much of a hoot over where these celebs sing, or for whom. The LA Times quotes Sting — a star with a reputation for charity work and activism — as defending having sung for the daughter of Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov:
Sting addressed criticism saying he was “well aware of the Uzbek president’s appalling reputation in the field of human rights as well as the environment. I made the decision to play there in spite of that.” He added, “I have come to believe that cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counterproductive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art and as a result become even more closed, paranoid and insular.”
The man has a point. Though it may sound like a self-interested argument, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.
(Cavanaugh’s blog entry has a wonderful quote from, of all people, Adolf Hitler, who shrugged off artists behaving in ways that might have taken by him to be treasonous: “I don’t take any of that seriously. We should never judge artists by their political views. The imagination they need for their work deprives them of the ability to think in realistic terms.”)
But this leads me wonder: just what is the objection to singers singing for dictators? Is the money the problem, or is it having sung for (or more generally having done business with, or having provided a service for) an evil man’s family? Consider: if the money really is the problem — i.e., if this really is a case of filthy lucre — then donating the money to charity really does utterly absolve the stars in question of any blame. Or at least it would if the timing weren’t so questionable. Singing for free would also be OK. Indeed, if the money is all that matters, then stars might have a positive obligation to sing for wealthy tyrants and give the money to charity. After all, what could be better than squeezing a few million out of a mad dictator’s family in order to do something good with it? And if singing for free (or singing for money and donating it to charity) isn’t OK, then that seems to imply that the money isn’t the problem either.
Two weeks ago I was at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, in part to participate in a panel discussion called “Certifying Virtue.” The panel was basically about the challenges faced by various attempts to certify particular consumer goods as having been ethically produced.
My excellent co-panelists were Greg Dees (director of Duke’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship) and Tim Büthe (Assistant Professor in Duke’s Political Science department). The panel was organized and moderated by Kenan’s Lou Brown.
My own comments focused on:
- The large number of value-dimensions along which different consumers might want assurances about the things they buy.
- The epistemic problems involved in figuring out how to measure the things you might want to certify (e.g., measuring “environmental impact”).
- The moral problem that arises when 2 or more desirable characteristics conflict (e.g., “wild” vs “organic” salmon — you might want both, but no one fish can be both wild and organic.)
- The role of brands and certification schemes as “value-alignment” mechanisms, helping consumers find producers with whom they want to do business.
The panel was videorecorded, and the resulting 90-minute video is here, on YouTube: Certifying Virtue
AOL bought the Huffington Post this week. Now, many of HuffPo’s volunteer bloggers are up in arms, accusing the left-leaning news-and-aggregation site of two related crimes: selling out to a (presumably) evil corporate media giant, and failing to share the wealth with thousands of volunteer bloggers who, over the years, have contributed probably millions of words to HuffPo’s archive of content.
But criticism was not limited to the volunteer bloggers themselves. Tim Rutton, of the LA Times, wrote:
To grasp its business model, though, you need to picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates….
Adbusters — the slightly-past-its-best-before-date organization whose sole purpose is to bash capitalism and consumerism — put it this way:
Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist. Now she’s cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp….
On the face of it, this sounds like a strong criticism. Use unpaid labour to build a truly massive (and profitable) online presence. Keep that unpaid labour in the fold by espousing values they believe in. And then sell out for hundreds of millions to a corporation that almost certainly could not care less about the aforementioned values. It really does sound tantamount to slavery, with a touch of ideological treason thrown in for good measure. But to understand this better, we need to know a little more about the economics of blogging. As a good starting point, see this piece by stats guru Nate Silver: The Economics of Blogging and The Huffington Post
The fact is, however, that sentiments like [the LA Times's] Mr. Rutten’s reflect a misunderstanding of The Huffington Post’s business model. Although The Huffington Post does not pay those who volunteer to write blogs for it, this content represents only a small share of its traffic. And, to put it bluntly, many of those blog posts aren’t worth very much….
Silver goes on to be much more specific, calculating the likely dollar value of the contribution of the average volunteer HuffPo Blogger.
The point is that for something over 99% of bloggers, blogging is a hobby. The contribution of most HuffPo bloggers to the website’s success is minimal. Those thousands of volunteer bloggers on whose “backs” HuffPo was supposedly built were likely more important as audience than as generators of content. Should the volunteer bloggers feel jilted? I’m reminded of a commercial from a few years back, in which a mom consoles her 8-year-old boy whose team just lost a game of soccer or hockey or something. “Did you try your hardest?”, asks the mom. “And did you have a good time? That’s all that really matters.”
Of course, if the volunteer bloggers are worried about the integrity of HuffPo’s editorial voice, you would think they would be somewhat consoled by the fact that Arianna Huffington is retaining the reins in that regard, and in fact will be gaining the key editorial role at AOL as a whole. But then, that’s reason why the rest of us should be deeply concerned, given Huffington’s penchant for featuring dangerously bad pieces related to things like healthcare, including some that are the intellectual equivalent of evolution denial.
During most of the 80′s (starting in 1984), customers of Domino’s Pizza in the U.S. enjoyed the benefits of a catchy promise of speedy delivery: Domino’s promised to deliver your pizza in “30 Minutes Or It’s Free.” The only problem: soon after the slogan was introduced, a rise in deaths due to accidents involving Domino’s drivers was noted. The assumption was that drivers were facing pressure to make good on the promise, and were therefore driving faster, which meant they were more likely to have accidents, some of which were fatal. Lawsuits ensued. Big ones. As a result, the “30 Minute” delivery promise ended back in 1991, in the U.S. But apparently the same can’t be said for Domino’s Korea.
Here’s the story, by blogger Lee Yoo Eun, blogging at Global Voices: South Korea: Backlash After ‘30 Minute’ Pizza Delivery Death
A popular Domino’s Pizza marketing strategy promising pizza delivery within 30 minutes of an order has met with a public backlash in South Korea, following the deaths of several young delivery personnel.
The Young Union, the union For Occupational and Environmental Health (FOEC) and several labor unions held a press conference on 8 February, 2011, in front of Domino’s Pizza’s headquarters in South Korean capital Seoul, pressuring the company to abolish the ‘30 Minute’ delivery system….
Here’s another version of the story, from the Korea Times: Quick delivery jeopardizes drivers.
In often discuss the story of “30 Minutes or It’s Free,” as it played out in the U.S., in my business ethics class. I use the case to illustrate 3 key points:
- A simple business decision can have large and unforeseen consequences, ones that result in a major ethical challenge for a company. In this case, a simple (and frankly brilliant) marketing slogan resulted in Domino’s executives being called killers and the company facing multi-million dollar lawsuits.
- The ethical thing to do is not always obvious. We spend a lot of time chastising companies for bad behaviour, but in at least some cases it is genuinely difficult to know what to do. In the Domino’s case, my students are typically unified in the opinion that something had to be done to reduce the rate of accident-related deaths involving Domino’s drivers, but they’re typically deeply divided on a) how far the company needs to go and b) just what strategy they should adopt.
- Putting an ethical decision into action can be very difficult. Back in the late 80′s, there were several thousand Domino’s pizza franchises in the U.S., and tens of thousands of drivers. Any decision made by Head Office was going to have to be implemented by all those franchisees and acted on by all those drivers. Making that sort of thing happen is anything but straightforward.
As for Domino’s Korea — frankly I’m stunned to find out that the people in charge of the Domino’s brand haven’t done more to make sure that a lesson learned 20 years ago, at great expense, is reflected in their international operations.
A collective gasp could be heard at one particular moment last night during the Super Bowl. No, I’m not talking about the gasp following Nick Collins’ 37 yard touchdown run in the first quarter. I’m talking about the gasp that issued at the punchline of the now-infamous Groupon.com commercial featuring Timothy Hutton.
You can see the 30-second spot here, on YouTube: Groupon – Tibet
And here’s the entire transcript:
“Mountainous Tibet — one of the most beautiful places in the world. This is Timothy Hutton. The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture is in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought at Groupon.com we’re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago.”
Immediately following the commercial’s appearance, Twitter lit up with comments about how “offensive” and “tasteless” the Groupon.com commercial was. Media outlets today have been abuzz with criticism and commentary. The headlines tell the tale. According to NBC Chicago: “Groupon Super Bowl Ad Not a Good Deal”. CNN Money.com‘s headline was “Groupon spends big on controversial (tasteless?) Super Bowl spots”. Time asks: “And the Most Offensive Super Bowl Ad Goes To: Groupon?”
But the ad was more than just tasteless. It was unethical. To recruit — and then trivialize — the plight of the people of Tibet to sell Groupon’s services shows a jaw-dropping level of disrespect. And while we often think of disrespect as a matter of bad manners, showing suitable respect for other humans’ basic needs and interets is a core moral principle.
It’s also worth pointing out that the commercial played, perhaps unintentionally, on the unfortunate fact that, for many westerners, complex Asian societies are often most closely associated with exotic dinner fare. Yes, yes, Tibet is exotic and troubled. But hey, they make a yummy curry!
Who knows just what the fallout will be? There have been predictions that Groupon will lose business over this — it’s been suggested that the company may have found the limit of the notion that “there’s no such thing as bad PR.” And, predictably, there have already been calls for a boycott of Groupon.com. Timothy Hutton (once an Academy Award winner) will likely have to go into the spokesperson’s equivalent of rehab, perhaps by working with a pro-Tibet charity of some sort.
Of course, some will cling to the notion that Groupon.com intended all this — that they knew the ad would be controversial, and were aiming directly at the enormous amount of free media coverage they’re now getting. Maybe that’s true. But it was a helluva gamble to take. And, if it was a gamble, it was a gamble that treated the people of Tibet as just another Asian trinket to be tossed in among the poker chips.
It’s been pointed out to me (by @Changents on Twitter) that Groupon is apparently donating money to the causes featured in its commercials. See: http://savethemoney.groupon.com/. I’m not at all sure that that’s sufficient to overcome the worries discussed above, especially given that the disrespectful commercials is all that most people will see or know about. What do you think?
Talk about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. PepsiCo has managed to make a win out of not sponsoring the biggest advertising event of the year.
See the story here, by Jennifer Preston of the NYT: Pepsi Bets on Local Grants, Not the Super Bowl
What’s better than reaching more than 100 million viewers during last year’s Super Bowl? For Pepsi, it could be 6,000 football fans during a high school game on Friday night in central Texas. Or a group of parents who wanted a new playground in their Las Vegas neighborhood.
That is the bet that PepsiCo made when it walked away from spending $20 million on television spots for Pepsi during last year’s Super Bowl and plowed the money into a monthly online contest for people to submit their ideas and compete for votes to win grants….
This is the first time in 23 years that Pepsi isn’t a sponsor of the Super Bowl. How did this happen? Who knows. Maybe the price-tag got too rich for them. Maybe they got outbid. (Though it’s worth noting that PepsiCo won’t be entirely absent from the Super Bowl: the game will feature ads for two of the company’s other brands, Pepsi Max and Doritos.) At any rate, Pepsi says it’s just a new strategy. Interestingly, they say — despite the fact that this new strategy involves giving millions of dollars to good causes — it’s not a philanthropic strategy:
“This was not a corporate philanthropy effort,” said Shiv Singh, head of digital for PepsiCo Beverages America. “This was using brand dollars with the belief that when you use these brand dollars to have consumers share ideas to change the world, the consumers will win, the brand will win, and the community will win.
It’s an interesting move. For one thing, it brings together cause-based marketing and social media on a supersized scale. And to me, whatever the motivation for the move, it’s a true-and-justified instance of corporate social responsibility. It’s not ethically obligatory: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing things the old way. It’s not unethical to spend $20 million-plus on commercials for the Super Bowl, like they did last year. And it’s not obligatory to support dozens or hundreds of local causes. So think of it this way: PepsiCo has $20 million to spend on building its brand. It had to choose a strategy, a choice regarding how to spend that money. They could give it to the NFL, or they could give it to a bunch of worthy charities. If they can achieve their objectives (and hence fulfill obligations to shareholders) while at the same time doing some social good, that’s a good example of CSR.
As the company says, though, it’s a gamble. But as gambles go, they’re sure making the best of it. PepsiCo is turning not sponsoring the Super Bowl into a straight-up victory, rather than a defeat. And notice also that, with the right media coverage, Pepsi still gets its name associated with the Super Bowl.
…Taco Bell’s “meat mixture”, which it dubs “seasoned beef” contained less than 35 % beef. If these figures are correct, the product would fail to meet minimum requirements, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to be labeled as “beef”. The other 65% of the “meat” is made up of water, soy lecithin, maltodextrin, silicon dioxide, anti-dusting agent and modified corn starch
Today comes news that Taco Bell is fighting back. See this story from ABC News: Taco Bell Fights ‘Where’s the Beef’ Lawsuit
According to the ABC story, Taco Bell President Greg Creed says the allegations are simply false.
Well, sorting that out shouldn’t be too hard, for some unbiased food scientists.
More interesting is Creed’s moralized counter-attack:
“Attacking a brand is like attacking a person. It’s just unacceptable when there aren’t any facts to support it….”
Attacking a brand is like attacking a person? How so? Creed doesn’t expand on the question, but he make just mean that attacking a brand is “like” attacking a person in that both are wrong when they involve falsehoods — perhaps simply because lying is generally wrong.
But setting aside that line of argument, is it possible that a stronger thesis is justified, namely that a brand is something that deserves protection the way that a person deserves protection? Now, I’ve argued before that corporations need to be considered persons. And I’ve also blogged about whether corporations should have the right to sue for libel to protect their interests. But a brand isn’t the same as a corporation, so the arguments I’ve given about those don’t quite hold, here.
The most obvious way to think of the ethical justification (or requirement?) for defending a brand against attack is to think of the brand as a piece of property. If you damage the brand, you damage the interests of those who own it. Sometimes that will be justified (perhaps because the good done by damaging the brand outweighs the interests and/or rights of the brand’s owners), and sometimes it won’t. But I wonder if a still-stronger thesis is possible: is there any reasonable sense in which the brand could be thought of as an entity in its own right, with interests separable from those of its owners? Consider the world’s most valuable brand, Coca Cola. If all of the owners of stock in Coca Cola repudiated their ownership rights, and if all the employees of the company all quit en masse (eliminating another key stakeholder), what would we say about the Coca Cola brand? It would no longer, per hypothesis, have any “owners.” Would it cease to have any ethical significance at all? Would there be nothing either right or wrong that you could do “to” it? What about other brands, like the Red Cross or Greenpeace?
I don’t have good answers, but I think it’s an intriguing question, given the significance of brands in the early 21st century.