Turning to Corporate America to Save the World

by Robert Koulish, from The Baltimore Sun, February 5, 2008

Former Vice President Al Gore and rock star Bono come from vastly different backgrounds, but this summer they have a lot in common. Each has been engaged in an extraordinary promotional campaign for a social cause, culminating in a highly commercialized media spectacle. For Mr. Gore, it was the Live Earth concert; for Bono, it was a special issue of Vanity Fair that he edited, featuring the Red Campaign to bring heightened awareness of Africa’s AIDS epidemic.

These efforts are changing the face of grass-roots politics, perhaps even forcing society to reconsider what it means to be politically involved. Shopping or going to a concert now counts as activism.

Mr. Gore and Bono are also fronting efforts to get corporate America’s vast resources behind important social problems. And each has made it trendy for advertising giants to get involved in such “cause marketing.”

By intertwining political messages in corporate advertising, Mr. Gore and Bono are attracting support for their causes, but they are also blurring important boundaries between commercial advertising and politics. The emerging role of advertisers as gatekeepers for political messages is a trend to be feared, especially with a Supreme Court that stands ready to bury the doctrine that distinguishes commercial speech (which may be regulated to protect the public) from political speech (which is protected by the First Amendment).

Mr. Gore surprised some people in June when he went to Cannes, France, as the featured speaker at the Lions International Advertising Festival. Mr. Gore’s message, warmly received, told advertisers to get behind Live Earth by integrating eco-friendly, cause-related marketing into the core of what they do.

Nowadays, it seems unimaginable for anybody, including Mr. Gore, to organize an event on the scale of Live Earth without turning to corporate America. Mr. Gore and Bono see an opportunity to leverage big business to address complex social issues. What advertisers see is an ability to leverage desired demographics (18- to 49-year-olds) in furtherance of commercial advertising.

Some suggest that it doesn’t matter who is using whom as long as important issues such as AIDS and global warming are being addressed.

But more is at stake than these two key social issues. Politics and social causes are the stuff of society’s public sphere, but the public sphere is being overwhelmed by the corporate logic of cause-related marketing.

The privatizing of Bono’s AIDS-prevention message offers a window on how this phenomenon is transforming political speech. Sponsors of the Red Campaign take Bono’s message, produce surreal versions of it, infuse it into products and then market it back to consumers. Consider a current Gap Red Campaign advertisement: “Can a T-shirt save the world? This one can! … 20,000. The number of women and children in Africa who can receive AIDS treatment for a year thanks to the contributions from your purchases of Gap Product Red.”

Is this ad commercial or political? Does it propose a commercial transaction? Is it misleading?

Advertising in the 21st century is less about proposing a transaction and more about constructing identities around corporate brands. But constructing personal and social identity fits more closely with political than commercial speech.

The First Amendment protects the sort of political dialogue Mr. Gore and Bono are promoting and prevents the government from regulating such dialogue without some extremely good reason. But the government is allowed to protect consumers from misleading product information by regulating commercial speech.

Because it is impossible to parse the political from the commercial in the Gap ads, this sort of advertising lends support to ongoing efforts by neoliberal, pro-deregulation forces to move advertising into the “political speech” category.

The problem is that oil and pharmaceutical companies, for example, would also seek protection from government regulators by hiding behind political-speech safeguards. But limits on commercial speech are there for a good reason.

Mingling commercial and political speech would allow corporations to mislead — even lie to — the public about such matters as product safety, product effectiveness and corporate profits. Another danger is that once corporations start calling the shots and setting the agenda regarding global warming or HIV/AIDS, potential remedies for these ills would likely be limited to those that are also profitable.

The proponents of Live Earth and the Red Campaign favor government regulation — for example, of carbon dioxide gas omissions or of the price of anti-HIV/AIDS pharmaceuticals — even if this dampens the corporate bottom line.

As Al Gore and Bono are devoting their lives to building awareness about global warming and HIV/AIDS, it would be a shame to see the legacy of Live Earth and Red Campaign interfere with the solutions these activists seek to deliver.

It matters who is using whom after all.

Robert Koulish is a political scientist and France-Merrick professor of service learning at Goucher College. His e-mail is rkoulish@goucher.edu.

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