Corporations have felt the sting of the Battle of Seattle that occurred in the United States of America in 1999. Thousands of activists, demanding social and ecological accountability of corporations, shut down the global meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999. And this was not an extraordinarily singular feat. In 2003, global civil society, in tactical alliance with 20 countries, neutralized the WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico, over similar concerns.
Transnational corporations (TNCs) are powerful. Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are TNCs. Walmart alone, for example, has an annual gross income that is more than double the $79 billion annual gross national product (GNP) of the Philippines. Yet corporations continue to feel the heat from dozens of boycott movements that are undermining their brands, reputations, and ultimately their profits.
The source of corporate strength is, at the same time, the very source of its weakness. Corporations spend over $500 billion per year on advertising to create and stamp their “brand” on the consciousness of their potential consumers. Their “brand” is what will set them apart from their rivals in an age of ruthless global competition. In effect, their brand is the identity they create which they hope millions of other consumers will share.
But a brand as identity is a cultural artifact. As such it is vulnerable to “symbolic pollution”, such as what happened when the Nike brand was associated with exploitative child labor in Indonesia some years ago. Likewise, Hoechst, a giant German pesticide corporation, had to change its name, in effect, its branding, when a significant number of its pesticide formulations where banned in the Philippines in the 1990s.
When a brand is “polluted”, it loses its power over the minds and hearts of its consumers. When a brand is polluted, it loses its ability to create profits for the corporation. A polluted brand means poor demand for corporate products and services. Poor demand leads to the collapse of the market. No market means no profits.
Civil society activists are very aware of this vulnerability of corporations. Thus they have launched “cultural wars” against abusive and exploitative corporations. They even have a guidebook called No Logo, written by Naomi Klein. They understand that cultural power controls the “demand side” of the business world. And culture is the natural habitat of civil society activists, a habitat where they have the natural advantage over the economic power of corporations.
This strategic weakness of corporations is also known at the highest levels of the boardroom. In a talk given at Rio + 5 in Brazil, Stephan Schmidheiny, the founder of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, was candid enough to admit that the “demand side” is the Achilles heel, the soft underbelly, of giant corporations. Ultimately, in a cultural war, corporations will lose if consumers lose their faith and trust in the brand of the corporation. And this trust is slowly but surely broken, sometimes dramatically, when the corporation becomes associated with questionable and exploitative practices.
As a response to significant defeats in the cultural wars of the past decade, corporations have developed a new branding strategy – “corporate social responsibility” or CSR. For a large number of corporations, CSR is nothing but a more sophisticated form of PR or public relations. It is nothing but an attempt to strengthen their own brands, in the midst of a consumer world that is becoming more and more sophisticated and more and more concerned about corporate social and ecological misconduct.
This is not to say that there are no corporations that take CSR seriously. There are corporations that do try to be more ecologically and socially responsible to communities and societies they are working in. But they are in the minority.
Some Philippine corporations seem either oblivious to these global developments or are simply hoping that no one will pay attention to their irresponsible practices. Among these are telecommunications giant, SMART, and Unilever, Philippines.
SMART has launched a series of advertisements aggressively promoting the concept of addiction. They have developed a new brand called “Addict Mobile”. Their advertising campaign uses words like “get hooked”. From the images they use of hip teenagers and young adults, they brand addiction to be cool. They are doing all these, of course, to sell their phone products and services.
SMART’s “Addict Mobile” is an example of a socially irresponsible branding approach. The Philippines is a country with over 4 million drug addicts and is also known to be one of the centers of drug trafficking in Southeast Asia. Instead of using their billions of pesos worth of financial resources to reduce addiction, SMART instead chooses to reinforce the addiction habit, this time displacing it into addictive phone purchase and usage.
SMART may not mean to, but it is in effect encouraging addictive behavior not only in cell phones, but beyond to even more harmful forms of addiction. It is removing the stigma of addiction and portraying this deplorable condition as cool. It has no psychological sophistication to realize that addictive behavior is transferable. An addictive behavior in one area of life tends to develop a propensity for addiction in another area of life.
Unilever prides itself as being a good corporate citizen. And indeed there are efforts in the global operations of Unilever to truly live up to the challenge of genuine CSR. However, their Philippine office seems to have a low appreciation of what CSR really means.
The largest newspapers recently are filled with articles about Close Up’s “Lovapalooza 2.” Close Up is one of the brands of Unilever, which uses a multiple branding approach. The goal of Lovapalooza 2 is to have a “million kisses” on Valentine’s Day. Unilever’s Close Up is encouraging couples to go out in public places and kiss with hundreds of thousands of other couples in a number of cities around the country. Its goal? They want to retain the so-called world record it established last year as the country with the most number of couples kissing simultaneously on Valentine’s Day.
Unilever may think that this event is a good promotional event for its Close Up toothpaste. But, from another perspective, it is another distasteful example of misuse of corporate financial resources to create a false sense of meaning and accomplishment in a nation longing to have a meaningful contribution to national and world affairs.
The Philippines is beset with many serious challenges – poverty, fiscal crisis, malnutrition, education, crime and others. It ranks in the top four in terms of the lowest global scores in math and science. It ranks number 11 in terms of perceived corruption. Its police force has received the dubious distinction of being in the top 10 of the most corrupt police forces in the world. Foreign news covers the Philippines often only when there is a major natural or social disaster. All these lead to a crisis of self-image and self- respect; in short, a crisis of identity and meaning.
To address this challenge, the recent Karangalan Conference and Festival tried to highlight the other, more dignified part of the Philippines by showcasing its genuine global and national achievements. It emphasized the outstanding work in how local government is addressing the fiscal crisis, how environmentalists are regenerating ecosystems, how new beginnings are being made in education, and how many other initiatives are now rebuilding a very different, much better Philippines.
But Unilever’s Close Up Lovapalooza 2 event trivializes this yearning for achievement and self-respect by promoting the dubious distinction of retaining the country’s reputation as the world’s top kisser. With all our problems, maybe Unilever thought that an “aphrodisiactic” event like this would be necessary to drown all the inner sorrows Filipinos are feeling and to forget for a moment all the challenges surrounding us. But, for sure, it nothing but a distraction from the serious task of nation-building that lies ahead.
No doubt “Lovapalooza 2” will sell more toothpaste for Unilever. But it trivializes the notion of love itself. Further, it portrays the image of a country that is blissfully in search of a shallow form of self-achievement in the midst of serious challenges to its future.
In the end, the question is: So what if we are the world’s top kisser? Will it make this country any better? What of the fact that a TNC convinced thousands of myopic Filipinos to line up in the streets and show their so-called “love”. Will that change the future of the country? I doubt it. But it will surely fatten the wallet of Unilever, the would-be purveyor of corporate social responsibility.
Cultural wars involving corporations and civil society have already found their foothold in the Philippines. Just ask those corporations who have received the “lason” or poison awards as among the dirtiest corporations in the country. Many corporations inevitably have had to change their practices to abide by environmental standards. It will not be surprising if SMART and Unilever become the targets of symbolic pollution and unwitting participants in cultural wars.
A nation bereft of a genuine understanding of true dignity is a nation that will surely drift in the treacherous and increasingly turbulent waters of the 21st century. True dignity can never be achieved by economic or political gimmicks. It can only come from a genuine source of inner meaning, creativity, and compassion – all of which leads to true service for the benefit of others.
When we do not question irresponsible large scale social events, we, by default, establish a new norm for our society. We are saying, in effect, that it is OK to glamorize addiction, that it is OK to trivialize the most powerful social force there is, Love. But if we challenge the irresponsible branding of the Filipino soul and spirit, and foist up authentic sources of identity and meaning, then we will create a society that can truly flourish amidst the wide-ranging challenges that lie ahead.