Social Mores and Advertising—Pt. 2:

I was a dinner party the other day and was confronted with a classic debate between two friends of mine, one of whom works in advertising and the other in a government job related to environmental sustainability. Friend A (man who works in sustainability) accused Friend B (woman who works in advertising) and her ilk of “creating demand” for products that we don’t need. Friend B countered by saying that we cannot “create demand” out of thin air, we can only satisfy emotional desires that already exist. Friend A believed that people were inherently decent but very vulnerable to the manipulations of shrewd advertising and marketing people, and Friend B believed that people were far more self-aware and self-directed than we give them credit for, and that advertisers (and agencies) were not evil manipulators bent on exploiting naïve consumers.

A spirited debate ensued, much of which wasn’t totally coherent due to emotions riding high, unresolved sexual tension (which was blatantly obvious to the rest of us) and a quantity of sangria having been ingested.

Does advertising shape our values and perceptions? Or does it merely reflect them? We will never have a definitive answer to these questions, but the fact that they keep coming up is meaningful unto itself. Let us say that, as with any relationship, advertising and the mind of society are in a constant and dynamic ‘inter-subjective’ relationship.

We do know that many advertisers and their agencies are not only people with well-developed sets of values, but take pains to ascertain what the values and concerns of their consumers and stakeholders are. Companies and markets are rife with surveys and polls that have gleaned that consumers (and employees) are increasingly conscious of corporate behaviour, and do make purchase and loyalty decisions that are influenced by their perception of the company’s social responsibility.

We can create a simple typology then of companies based on their respective level of commitment to values and social responsibility:

Window Dressers: these are companies who do the minimum required to keep them out of trouble. There is no intrinsic set of values other than single bottom line (making a profit) and investments in corporate responsibility are haphazard, reactive and tend to follow trends, if at all.

Responsible Citizens: these companies are inherently caring and values-based, but may not yet have a defined social strategy and are still doing things the 20th century way: through philanthropy and cause-related marketing, where these activities are generally an add on the rest of the business.

The Vanguard: these are the companies that take an avowed stance on social issues that matter to them, where their values are inseparable from their behaviours and generally transmitted through all their communications. Patagonia, Tom’s, Mountain Equipment Coop, are but a few names in this category. Even the Royal Bank of Canada and GE, with their comprehensive commitments to clean water and environment, respectively, are moving into this category.

In the next post, we’ll explore some basic principles that companies can use to develop a more strategic and integrated way of coupling their values and aspirations for society with their business interests.