On Wednesday, Unilever chose Universal Children's Day to launch the latest phase of their work to integrate the creation of a better world into their marketing. At a time when the world's politicians are winding up in Warsaw after another round of failing to do anything significant about climate change, it is wonderful to see one of our largest corporations taking unilateral action in such committed fashion.
But. I am so sorry, but there is a but. If we are to stare hard into the face of the problem, we still have to ask ourselves a question.
It's not primarily about the nature of the film they have made. The use of the expectant parents' fear for their child's future as a communications device is clearly heading into very deep psychological waters, but if that communication is genuinely directed at shifting our course as a society onto a more sustainable path, I have little problem with it.
Such a device does however accentuate the importance of the true question: are they genuinely committed to using their position in all possible ways to shape a better world? Or will they only do so while it also supports narrowly defined business success? We will only know when the two come into tension if not outright contradiction - which they will.
Let us first though accept that there is value in the small consumer actions that Unilever is promoting through Project Sunlight. If they give people a sense of agency in the face of these great challenges that is no bad thing. And in sketching out these actions and pulling them together into a coherent whole, they are truly exploring the limits of the win:win of doing good while selling more stuff.
But what happens when win:win is not available, and the immediate demands of the existing business model of one of their brands must be weighed against doing the right thing? And beyond that, what is their role in encouraging people to take a role in the change we need in our society beyond merely what we buy?
The jury is still out, but I have to say the early signs are not good.
The first evidence for the prosecution is the much-noted case of Lynx/Axe, a brand notable by its absence from Project Sunlight. Commentators from academics to adbusters have pointed out the incoherence of Unilever owning both Lynx/Axe and Dove, and it really is deeply troubling. How can anyone not feel that the Dove positioning is merely a tactical marketing tool, trivialising and undermining the idea of real beauty, when they know that Axe/Lynx ads are paid for from the same budget line?
Unilever's responses, and those of their agencies, have to date been far from satisfactory. Executives like Marc Mathieu, Senior VP for Marketing, talk about Axe/Lynx campaigns as if they merely impacted at a conscious level, at which people supposedly know it is just a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun. Either they are lying, or being wilfully ignorant. Advertising campaigns do the lion's share of their work at an unconscious level, creating and reinforcing norms in society. In such a context, Axe/Lynx advertising is, like casual racism, a joke that should never be told. To run Dove and Axe/Lynx at the same time is at best morally inconsistent, and at worst reprehensible.
The second challenge steps up the debate to another level. At some stage, we have to understand that buying products from Unilever and using them a bit differently might make a little dent in climate change, but it is not going to solve it. For us to solve these issues, we are going to have to wake up from our consumer slumber and take an active role in shaping the society we want. We will need not just to pick better from the menu companies write for us as consumers, but to take a role in deciding what's on that menu in the first place through engaging as citizens.
This is my biggest problem with what Unilever have done to date. Every sign suggests that they are quite happy to remain part of the great hushing of human potential that the current dominance of the consumer entails.
This is no better exemplified than in a story I was told by someone who worked on Unilever's advertising some years ago. The brief was to alert consumers to the impact of products containing palm oil from non-sustainable sources, the medium press advertising. The agency proposed a radical approach, actually celebrating the impact Greenpeace campaigners had had on Unilever. The ad would have used an image from that protest (below) with the headline 'This was our wake-up call. This is yours.'
Running such an ad would have endorsed the importance of peaceful protest, and celebrated the role of people doing something beyond the binary 'buy/don't buy' consumer choice. It would have generated huge press coverage, and made a significant impact on the 'protesters are pointless' approach that global corporations generally like to maintain. It would have communicated with people as citizens, capable of moral agency of their own, rather than the usual 'shh little man, just buy things' message of advertising. Unfortunately, after disappearing up the chain and coming back down, the below is what they ran; and is the narrative of which Project Sunlight remains part.
I am not saying 'No' to Unilever. I am saying 'Yes... and?' If they really are stepping up and exploring their moral agency, they might now be ready publicly to acknowledge the wrong in the way they have marketed Axe/Lynx; and they might now be ready to help us break out of the quelling and constricting narrative of consumerism. It is possible for brands to talk to us as citizens, and build loyalty and value by treating us with that level of respect. But Unilever are not doing so yet. And if they're only prepared to go as far as win:win and playing safely within the bounds of a system which they clearly know full well is on crash course, I think perhaps they should leave expectant parents out of this.
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