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I think I’m doing something but am I? Corporate activism, ‘conscious’ consuming, smoke and mirrors

“I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony…”
Coca-Cola, 1971
It’s a wonderful time to be a consumer. With my Kenco morning coffee, I’m helping gang members give up a life of crime. By choosing Ecofemme reusable sanitary pads, I am helping a young girl in India continue her education beyond her first period. My evening Heineken is perhaps less tangible but more influential, as I’m sponsoring all kinds of slightly woozy but educational conversations about feminism, transphobia and climate changeOk, so let’s not dwell too long on Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner sickeningly saccharine ad which soooo didn’t get the concept behind Black Lives Matter – but at least its diseased heart was (kind of) in the right place. And I can always choose a beverage from Starbucks instead, which has promised to hire 10,000 refugees in the USA (take that Trump!)

Wonderful, right?
Or a cynical profit-driven ploy?
Or simply effective for all involved?

First, some insights from the coalface, having worked in the Irish advertising scene for more than a few years.

People who work in advertising work very hard. They really interrogate the details. The process is practically scientific, in a soft science kind of way. They chip away at a brand, stripping it back to its essential meaning and promise. They chip away until what’s left is one sleek truth of the brand and with blood, sweat, long hours and tears, around this truth they build communications that inform and entertain, that make the brand part of your life. “I can feel it coming in the air tonight, Oh Lord…” Name that brand. See that colour. Choose that…


Another thing about people in advertising is that mostly they are nice people who entered the profession not to practice the dark, manipulative arts of The Hidden Persuaders but because it’s a viable career path for those who like ideas and design. Look beyond the skinny jeans and irony and you find very ‘normal’ people – almost remarkably conventional. Most advertisers of my generation (and I am old in advertising years), have the mortgage, marriage, kids and vinyl collection now. Which is fine. Most people are of their time. In a few decades, most of what we all think and do will look really dated. There are few true originals. And anyway, houses, marriages and kids are classic aspirations, they’re not going away.

But given that arresting advertising brings the zeitgeist home, why is the industry full of such conventional types? The incredible and highly original ad gal Cindy Gallup might argue that it’s about White Men hiring White Men. ‘Can’t really argue with that.

And/or perhaps successful ad folk achieve the conventional trappings of success because they are good at playing the game. If savvy and goal orientated enough to achieve a media job (not quite climbing K2 but still), they will probably also achieve other popular goalposts along life’s journey. (Or should that be life’s property ladder?)

Anyway, I digress. The point is that the people who come up with these trendy activist campaigns, being staunchly normal, want the best for other people, their children and the planet. So wanting to reform gang members via selling coffee is not a cynical ploy.

And activism is trendy. The dirty business of fashion is on it. And it will soon be socially acceptable to say you don’t use toilet paper. Yes it will.

So what’s the problem with us consumers choosing brands that do good?

Nothing. And everything.

Nothing because it is great that Pampers gives a vaccine to a baby every time I buy a pack.

Everything because none of it is solving the Bigger Problems.

We’re still buying stuff. We’re actually buying more stuff. And those Pampers won’t biodegrade for 450 years, long after my rich child and the poor one that got vaccinated are both ancient bones. And shouldn’t a government be giving out those vaccines instead of a corporation anyway? And there will be thousands of knock-offs of those ‘The future is female’ t-shirts made by women making so little money that they can’t afford to live with their children. And those knock-offs will end in landfill.

But those are just details. The problem is that all of this consuming is still happening within the capitalist system and mindless, deaf, blind capitalism which answers to the bottom line is killing us all, as I may have mentioned last time.

Of just about every single thing, we need less not more. We don’t really need more cloths. We don’t need any Pepsi. Beer is not the answer.

What we need is a fundamental shift in what society values and how civilisation is organised.

The human instinct is to forage. In our sick society, we forage in the shopping centre. Alienated from nature and mystified by globalisation, we have no sense of where the cotton for the t-shirt came from or what the real value of the coffee is (“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it”. Henry David Thoreau). We don’t see cause or consequence. And by even consuming with a side of activism, we are perpetuating the environmentally costly cycle of production. What’s more, it makes big business happy. Now they’re trying to tell us only the power of capitalism can save the planet, as if the forces of capitalism will do the job of government and regulate themselves, a kind of natural selection driven by altruism not the bottom line. But we’ve seen where lack of regulation leads: the global crash of 2008 for starters.

It’s a bit hard to take. Surely, in a bipartisan world of failing democracies, our only real power is as consumers? We can at least exercise our sacred right of refusal. Well yeah but ‘activism consumption’ doesn’t invite refusal. It invites us to buy and still feel ok about buying. We get that altruistic kick the easy way and then we potter on, satisfied, while the planet goes on burning.

The problem is being human. Our lifespans are too short. Our sense of proportion is way off. We create mind maps of our bodies, our things, our cities, our world where the smallest details loom large and the bigger issues fade into the background. Everyone makes a village out of a city. We walk the same beaten track. We visit the same cafes. We create familiarity. We make things small. A hang nail defines my morning but I barely notice the opportunities of youth passing. I buy Fairtrade quinoa. I drive it home in my car. I choose a bunch of bananas that didn’t come in plastic. I don’t write a letter of complaint to Aldi about all the other plastic-smothered food I did buy.

‘Conscious consuming’ distracts. It makes us think we’re doing something. It’s not unlike giving a tenner a month to a charity for drought struck Africans while living a high carbon lifestyle that is causing drought. Of course, it’s better than unconscious consuming but only if we don’t buy the latest sales spiel about how corporations will save us and only if consciousness keeps growing.

Because what is the road to hell paved with?

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