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NFPs Should Remain Vigilant on Corporate Marketing Tools


28 April 2015 at 11:01 am
Lina Caneva
Not for Profits should not be so eager to emulate the undisputed success of corporate marketing tools, writes Callan Lawrence, the online communications coordinator at Settlement Services International.

Lina Caneva | 28 April 2015 at 11:01 am


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NFPs Should Remain Vigilant on Corporate Marketing Tools
28 April 2015 at 11:01 am

Not for Profits should not be so eager to emulate the undisputed success of corporate marketing tools, writes Callan Lawrence, the online communications coordinator at Settlement Services International.

Is it possible to influence population behaviour and spark positive, life-altering, change with the same success that corporations have influenced people to exploit them for profit? This was an underlying question at the World Social Marketing Conference in Sydney this month.

The pervasive success of corporate marketing could easily have those of us in the Not for Profit and public sectors looking on green with envy at the prospect of influencing people with such effect. But we have been implored to not be so eager. The ends don’t always justify the means.

By any measure, marketing is one of the most successful and pervasive industries of . . . well, forever. Corporate marketing influences the behaviour of people in order to sell them products, brands (more accurately), or ideas. It’s exploitative by nature. Corporate marketing is the foundation of late capitalism. I know zero examples of marketers selling ice to Eskimos but we all know they can sell water to people with taps in their homes.

Social marketing on the other hand, for those not yet familiar, seeks to use the tools and strategies of marketing to affect positive behavioural change. This is how governments and health authorities have influenced people to realise that smoking isn’t the coolest things ever; that sunscreen is a good idea; and, that drink driving isn’t the fastest way home after a dozen beers.

But using corporate marketing strategies and tools to influence positive change doesn’t sit well with everyone seeking to do so. The impressive Joel Bakan – filmmaker professor of law at the University of British Columbia, and author of Childhood under siege: how big business targets children, amongst other titles – appealed to social marketers at the conference to remain vigilant.

Paraphrasing the late feminist Audre Lorde, Bakan said social marketing seemed to work on the principle that “the master’s tools can be used to renovate the master’s house. But is it naive to think we can use the master’s tools?”, he asked.

Be critical, Bakan said. Bakan, whose 2011 book looked at the means used to exploit children for capital gains, said he saw two basic dynamics of corporate marketing that were a challenge for social marketing: strategies that should not be mirrored.

One: “individualisation”. Corporate marketing’s focus on individualisation and choice has been used to detach corporations from blame. Individuals make choices in liberal economies. Corporations just provide choices: therefore, blame for bad choices rests with individuals. Blame for environmental degradation and exploitative labour practices or the prevalence of cheap, unhealthy food is deflected to the consumer. Yet the choices that lead to these effects are often obfuscated behind misleading branding and claims in advertising.

Bakan chose to quote Karl Marx here: “we make choices but not in conditions of our own choosing.” Marx may not have got everything right, but surely that insight was on point.

Two: “issue shaping”. The way issues are presented by marketers for the benefit of corporations is an insidious practise, Bakan said. He pointed to the now ingrained strategy of corporations leveraging real social issues and changing the discourse to influence the sale of consumer goods. He referenced the creation of medical conditions to sell drugs, as a poignant example of this.

And to what extent are corporations sleeping on the major social and environmental issues? Shell may preach its “sustainable” practices but it won’t stop drilling and selling oil in order to limit climate change. Coke can introduce a “life” brand and claim it’s healthier but it won’t stop selling its unhealthy product.

Bakan told us that without critical reflexiveness, benevolent organisations could risk following these marketers into their more deceptive practices. Aside from deception, trust is another key ingredient in influencing people.

Build trust with responsible but clever branding and marketing, and trust will follow. Hopefully then the positive change will too.  

About the author: Callan Lawrence is the online communications coordinator at Settlement Services International. He is a freelance front-end website designer and online media strategist and producer, and a freelance journalist.


Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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