Corporate Social Responsibility – Using One’s Power for Good or Just Another Marketing Ploy?
“Imagine a world where every girl grows up with the self-esteem she needs to reach her full potential, and where every woman enjoys feeling confident in her own beauty” Dove Self Esteem Fund
“Be it a competitive Sporty Girl, a tireless Party Girl or a High Maintenance Girl, the hottest girls are the most demanding. So recharge with AXE Shower gels” AXE
The Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada defines Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as the “voluntary activities undertaken by a company to operate in an economic, social and environmentally sustainable manner” (2013). While there are many different approaches to CSR, the better-known form of CSR is when a corporation uses its power and money to make a positive social impact on issues such as health, community, and sustainability. This social impact as also an opportunity for the company to benefit in terms of enhancing the brand’s image, gaining customer and employee loyalty, and increasing sales.
CSR is an example of the struggle between business and ethics. Consumers expect companies to be socially responsible. Companies now have mission statements, values and entire CSR webpages. A great case study of this is Unilever, which is a multinational company that owns some of the world’s most well known brands.
According to Unilever, sustainability and CSR are not just tokenisms, but there is an actual business case for them.
In addition to multiple CSR projects around health, wellness, education, community, environment and sustainability, Unilever has also committed to working with governments to help achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. They make the “most significant contribution to the MDGs through the products we sell and the wealth and jobs our business operations create” (Unilever.com, 2013).
But what happens when a company with a strong commitment to CSR owns brands with contradictory social messages – one that promotes health and wellness and another that perpetuates stereotypes and inequities?
One of Unilever’s most well-known brands, Dove, it launched the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty 2004, a massive marketing campaign to challenge our culture’s beauty stereotypes. Dove uses “real” women in their campaigns and in one ad, even shows all of the work that goes into making a “natural” looking model. It also started the Dove Self Esteem Fund to create advertisements, toolkits, guides, videos, workshops and events to promote self-esteem among women. (Click here to see Dove’s ad ‘Onslaught’)
However, one of Unilever’s other brands, Axe, is known for their ads where using their product will enhance a guy’s sex appeal. Their ads are meant to be over the top and silly, but they always use the Regular Joe gets sexy girl when he uses Axe theme. As the Unilever website says, “Getting the girl has never been easier, thanks to the Axe effect” (2013). (Click here to see AXE’s newest commercial)
So what do we make of these two contradictory messages that come from the same corporation? Can we trust the good deeds and social initiatives of big companies? How much of CSR is about giving back and using one’s capital to do “good” and how much of it is about good public relations and marketing? Is CSR just another ploy to get more customers, support and money? Does it matter if the intent is marketing and publicity if the goal, whether it be to raise money to find a cure for cancer or to increase women and girls’ self esteem, is met?
And now, as a (hopeful) future public health professional, it has become even more complicated and I have even more questions (!). I am starting to realize that we cannot separate health from business or money any more than we can separate it from ethics and rights. So where does this leave us? I do not have any answers. In fact, the more I learn, the messier it gets. CSR is just one example of the balance between the hypocrisy– capitalism and the business of health versus true and sustainable health and wellbeing for all – that we as public health professionals will face. I do not have any answers to any of the questions above except that I think we do what we can. It is not best answer and it is one that I struggle with every day (and I am not even graduated yet!), but it helps.
Axe Website http://www.axe.ca/#/axe-campaigns/keepup
Axe Commercials http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL598C34DC6F63C425
Dove Campaign images and videos http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/dove%20campaign
Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (2013). Corporate Social Responsibility. Retrieved from http://www.international.gc.ca/trade-agreements-accords-commerciaux/ds/csr.aspx?view=d
O’Donnell, Daniel (2008). Unilever’s Dove and Axe: Examples of Hypocrisy or Good Marketing? Case Study Competition (Arthur W. Page Society): 39–51. Retrieved from http://awpagesociety.com/images/uploads/08CaseStudy_Journal.pdf