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Published on December 20th, 2013 | by Ben Lucas
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Greenwash, Unilever and the Personification of the Corporation.

Over the past century, with the invention of the TV and the Internet, marketing budgets have grown vastly in line with the inventions and technological advancements of TV and the Internet. The fundamental idea behind marketing is to make ones demand for a good or service more inelastic .i.e. as the price increases demand for that good will not change. The creation of brand loyalty, by marketing, is an investment that hopes to yield or maintain profits in the face of competition.

However for many big energy companies in the late 60’s early 70’s during the environmental movements in the Western world, their public image was starting to deteriorate rapidly. With news of oil spills and damage to the environment and ecological systems, protest movements desired radical change; away from oil, gas and nuclear to alternative renewable sources of energy. But rather than admit defeat they went on the PR offensive and did what is now known as the tactic of corporate greenwash. Initially labeled as ‘ecopornography’, Greenpeace defines greenwash as: “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.”

As Globalization and its coinciding environmental damage has spread across the globe so to has the historical practice of greenwash, where it has been gradually perfected by the professional public relations companies. Its rise has been thoroughly well documented, with Greenpeace donating a whole different web domain to the topic (www.stopgreenwash.org). However corporations not necessarily involved in environmental destruction are now also pursuing strong PR and marketing campaigns. What are their motivations behind their advertisements? Is it just about brand loyalty or something deeper?

Recently Unilever has launched its Project sunlight with the following youtube ad called “why bring a child into this world?”: The advert looks to tell the story of how bad things are in the world as it stands with War, famine and political turmoil in many countries. But then shows that with hope, belief and the ever advancing human race we should be able to solve these things.

 

At first I found the advert ironic given that they themselves are responsible for or involved in some horrible acts witnessed throughout the world. In 2001 Hindustan Lever allegedly did not provide or enforce adequate protection to its employees or safety standards in the waste management of its mercury thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, India. 12 years later they have still not accepted responsibility, cleaned up the pollution and not compensated the families or communities that have suffered where many of the workers have died over the years because of the contact with the mercury at the factory. Furthermore in 2011, according to ethcalconsumer.org, Unilever has dealt with and supported companies involved in violent land grabs of indigenous communities of Indonesia. And, unsurprisingly, they have allegedly been involved in tax evasion; locating over a quarter of its 696 subsidiaries in tax havens.

There is an element of greenwashing involved here, but it is not the main concern of this particular ad campaign. Fundamentally, this advert was about the personification of the corporation. Its goal, I believe, was to make Unilever appear Human with an ability to empathize and care and recognize the suffering and hardship of every individual globally. This is why I believe it focused on childbirth. Something that every human will witness or experience in their lifetime. In practice, as I highlighted earlier, Unilever has none of these human attributes.

However Unilever is not the only one. Coca cola quite literally personified its drinks by printing names on the bottles. During the adverts they made tributes and messages to loved members of friends and family. Not only are you supposed to come away thinking that I can also show my gratitude to someone by buying a bottle of coke with their name on it, but you have come to associate an act of human kindness with Coca-cola itself. Mark Thomas documents the alleged acts of Coca-Cola, in particular threatening and murdering Trade union activists in Columbia, in his book Belching out the Devil.

More recently Lloyds Bank have released a series of poster and TV adverts with variations on the theme “for moments that matter”.

In this TV advert, again Lloyds tries to make itself appear human by understanding the stresses and strains of finding a home as a first time buyer. Again its corrupt background involving: the mis-sale of PPI, tacit complicity in the libor scandal, being one of the main banks responsible for dragging this country into austerity and the recent revelations of sale of unwanted financial products incentivized by a untamed bonus culture (which it was warned about years ago) prove that this bank is not really interested in any of the struggles of first time buys and small businesses.

The other side of the personifications of corporations by this style of marketing and PR is the essentialisation of these companies. Unilever, whilst wanting to appear human, also wanted to show that it was a brand trying to create positive change in this world. Similarly, Lloyds want to make sure that for every important decision such as your first house, or maintain your family business or even small frivolous purchases, that all of those things are only possible because of Lloyds Bank.

These companies want to make sure that in everyday life or in the need for radical change, that they are essential in maintenance and evolution of society. Not all corporations are acting in the same way on TV screens and advertising billboards, but this style of advertising may become a popular trend yet to embrace mainstream advertising. The Occupy movements across the globe put into question, even if for a split second, the need for the existence of these corporations and banks in the first place. They are now trying to make sure that they are not only guilt free good guys but that they are indeed essential in our lives and communities.

 

 

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Ben graduated from Sussex University where he studied Economics and International Relations. He has a passion for film-making and is currently volunteer researcher for Catch21.



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