Monday, 10 November 2014

Spot the war profiteering disguised as charidee

Don't forget the profit opportunities
A few weeks ago, flicking through my Twitter feed, I came across a retweeted contribution from one Douglas Carswell, the newly-elected – and first – UKIP MP.

In just 147 characters, he managed to mention both “sofa government” and “citizen consumers”.

The former is all about government policy being made by senior ministers and a handful of advisors.

The latter refers to an idea that citizens, via their consumption, can ensure that companies make ethical decisions.

It has been done. In the 1980s, declining sales of aerosols producing CFCs forced manufacturers to rethink the products and come up with less environmentally damaging solutions.

But apart from such high-profile campaigns, how much can it work?

For instance, will enough people to make a difference boycott companies that pay such low wages that the taxpayer has to top them up in order for workers to be able to afford to live?

Underlying it all is the ideology of deregulation: if the consumer makes the choices, no government intervention would be needed. And, of course, The Market, given free rein, will provide the ‘perfect’ results (as though the market were somehow not entirely dependent on human intervention, including political intervention and decisions – but that’s a different subject).

All of which sounds lovely, but is as divorced from reality as telling people that, if regulations are removed and those at the top were just allowed to do whatever they want in order to make money, the increased wealth would ‘trickle down’ to everyone else.

It also supposes that the majority of people are, when being consumers, able to make ethical choices that often mean spending at least a little more cash – or that most people have the time or inclination to investigate the ethics behind every purchase that they make, which itself often means digging quite deep behind the fa├žade of corporate bullshit.

Blingtastic way to remember the war dead
In terms of affording the ethical, the fallacy of trickle-down is a major factor in why incomes for the majority have fallen, putting increasing numbers of people in a position where they can less and less afford to look for those ethical options.

Research in the US suggests that consumers (or at least some) want the companies that they buy from to be involved with ‘causes’.

I’ve dealtwith ‘cause marketing’ on this blog previously, but this is just another take on the same thing, spun a little differently and taking it to the level of political ideology.

Over the weekend, there appeared on my TV an advert from Sainsbury’s, linking that store with the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal.

The company offered, among other things, to recycle your poppy if you return it to the store after use. The advert describes a commitment to the past – and the future – with images of an elderly man (a veteran, presumably) and a young boy (a future veteran?), while also noting that stores sell a range of poppy-related objects (such as an umbrella), with proceeds going to the Legion.

So, is Sainsbury’s doing all this out a genuine sense of charity/patriotism?

Well, it might be. It is entirely possible that the company’s head honchos feel a deep commitment to remembrance and to the wellbeing of veterans.

But on the other hand, that’s not why it’s being advertised in such a way. It’s being advertised to show the company in such a light that it will encourage customers to shop there.

That is not ethical: it is nothing other, at core, than trying to profit from war.

Oh, Sainsbury’s might not make a penny from any poppy-related purchase or act of education or recycling – some of these might even cost the company money. But all that is an investment.

The chances of someone responding to that advert just to pop this year’s used poppy in a recycling tub (instead of in the recycling bag or box they get from the local waste collection service), and not then doing some shopping there seems a tad unlikely.

Will people really decide to make an extra shopping trip just to go to Sainsbury’s – when they do not do so usually – to buy a poppy brolly – when you can choosefrom seven different poppy umbrellas at the Royal British Legion’s own online shop – and then walk out and not pick up a few odds and ends for that midweek supper?

This is about persuading the ‘citizen consumer’ to shop at Sainsbury’s because it shows obvious, outward support for a cause that that shopper cares about. The adverts are deliberately placed to coincide with the annual remembrance ceremonies and Armistice Day.

They won’t be appearing next April, with a message that Sainsbury’s is still caring about remembrance and veterans, even when no poppies are on sale and no commemorations are scheduled.

Poppy pizzas from Tesco
If Sainsbury’s cared about remembrance and veterans, and not profits, it wouldn’t spend hundreds of thousands of pounds creating advertising campaigns on the issue. It could donate that cash to the Legion instead, without making a hoo-ha about it that simply screams: ‘just look how good we are by doing charidee stuff’.

This is cause marketing, aimed at the citizen consumer, and with the prime intent of increasing footfall and, with that, profits.

Of course, Sainsbury’s is far from being alone in such behavior. Indeed, Bill King spotted Tesco selling ‘poppy pizzas’.

A Tesco pizza is probably tasteless anyway, but this takes it to a whole new level.

And there will be be countless more companies playing the same sort of games.

So perhaps the ‘real’ citizen consumer should, then, deliberately refuse to spend money at companies that so blatantly exploit the war dead to make a buck.

They might also consider that the Royal British Legion needs funds to help veterans, because governments that send people to war rarely seem much interested in those veterans once they return, and thus the public is left to fill the pick up the pieces via charitable donation.

But then again, all this would involve real and meaningful ethical or moral choices: and that is not what the concepts of ‘citizen consumer’ and ‘cause marketing’ are remotely about.

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