The Truth About Your Favorite Company’s “Social Media Activism”

I read an article in the New York Times today that struck me as so bizarre as to be almost humorous. Apparently, there’s a big push on social media for companies to start picking sides in conflicts over social issues. Besides being an absurd request, what has gotten into everyone’s mind about the role of corporations and social change?

Here’s a reminder about most large companies – they exist to make money. If a large company suddenly decides to pick a side on a social issue, that means that the company’s PR team has done the research and decided that picking one side over another will make them more money than by staying out of it.

For an innocuous example, consider that Axe Body and Dove are owned and manufactured by the same company. They couldn’t possibly have more different messages about their products, though. Axe is known for its ads that see culturally attractive women being easily won over by a musky odor. (If that were the case, then high school boys’ locker rooms would be overrun by women wanting a sniff – but I have yet to hear of any such stampedes toward that particularly pungent sector.) Dove is known for promoting “body positivity” in women, celebrating different body sizes and shapes. This is admirable, and very good marketing in today’s American culture. So despite the different marketing approaches which seemed designed to clash with one another, one company gets to ride both sides of the objectification issue and make money hand over fist in the process.

That example aside, a company picking a side is not evidence that they are socially conscious or making a stand on principle or values. A company picking a side is more likely to be a cynical money grab by a savvy marketing team who can weigh cost effectiveness.

Now, this is not to say anything about actual individuals who may run these companies or design these marketing campaigns. The individuals may actually be giving money to charity, volunteering their time, or making an effort to effect change for the better or stand up for values they believe are right. But we should be careful conflating individuals and companies. Corporations are file folders full of legalese-d paper that protect against being sued personally. And, as I hope we all know, file folders don’t have emotions or moral aims.

Many business owners I know are very involved in social action – donating money, time, and energy to causes they support. They tackle everything from medical research, to local religious institutions, to poverty, to overseas aid, to adoption, to foster care, and so many other issues that are desperately in need of support.

The take away here is to make sure our kids and families understand that companies exist to make a profit, unless otherwise specifically stated – or management isn’t up to snuff (ha, ha, business joke.) We need to train our children to think critically about advertising and what it’s actually saying, and what its unstated aims are.

How do you encourage critical thinking in your kids when it comes to advertising? How does your response to advertising inform your kids’ view of it? When do you stop and think about advertising and what its direct and underlying messages are saying to you and your kids?

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