Chevron's decision to launch a splashy ad campaign with the tagline "We Agree" was hardly the first time that a global energy company has spent millions of dollars trying to enhance positive perceptions of their brand by pivoting away from public opposition. But it may be one of the last times that we see energy companies trying to saddle up to members of the public as if they were a potential date at a Georgetown bar.
Chevron's new campaign was punked by the activist-perfomers The Yes Men, who partnered with the Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch to create a fake version of the "We Agree" campaign that was erroneously picked up by the media as authentic. The Yes Men sent out a fake press release hours before the launch of the Chevron campaign and created a fake website at www.chevron-weagree.com that fooled reporters into thinking their campaign was real. Chevron is currently fighting an $18 billion lawsuit in Ecuador over the actions of their subsidiary Texaco, dating back twenty years. Chevron claims that they have repaired the damage caused by the oilfields, and they contend that the Ecuadorian courts have been biased against them. According to the Rainforest Action Network, the company is launching this campaign in order to avoid paying one of the largest settlements in history.
Chevron has launched a campaign that has struck a hollow chord with the public before. Their "People Do" campaign asked rhetorical questions about their good works including restoring marshes once used for oil exploration. Many of those "good deeds" were required by law.
The Yes Men are tapping into a rich tradition of political theater that lies somewhere in between Guy Debord of the French situationist movement and Ashton Kutcher. As the power of social media continues to grow, we'll see more and more of this type of takedown. There are no shortage of ad campaigns that deserve to be mocked.
I saw this campaign from Shell in the San Francisco airport during the heart of the Gulf Oil disaster.
If they really had the technology, it would have been nice if they had gone and shut down the exploding well in the Gulf. But I suppose that wasn't the technology they were talking about.
Or how about this campaign from Kentucky Fried Chicken for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation?
KFC committed to donating fifty cents for every bucket of chicken they sold to the Foundation. At about the same time they launched and promoted their 'Double-Down' sandwich which consists of two deep-fried filets of chicken surrounding two pieces of bacon, two pieces of monterey jack cheese, and the Colonel's sauce. It's hard to sell a sandwich with 32 grams of fat and be a respected voice in the fight against breast cancer.
As time goes on, these sorts of campaigns will begin to diminish. Chevron's recent campaigns will be remembered as oddities that were born out of a time when weak research suggested that the public could be tricked in a lasting way by a catchy ad, relentlessly applied. The era of greenwashing is over for the simple reason that it doesn't work. For the price of a URL and a little wit, a campaign that is out of step with reality can be hacked and become more of a liability than a potential benefit.
There will still be companies with reputational liabilities that will push their eager creatives to design campaigns to shine up their names. For them, I offer the following advice.
1) Resolve your crisis.
Before GE could launch their Ecomagination effort, which brought together their various ecologically-oriented businesses into one united initiative, they had to deal with their ongoing Hudson River pollution liability. Between 1947 and 1977 GE dumped 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River. Environmental advocates and the EPA demanded that they dredge the river. GE passionately believed they had fulfilled their moral and legal responsibility to clean the abandoned site and litigated to protect themselves. Eventually they concluded that paying the price to clean the Hudson was less expensive than the continuing attacks on their reputation. There is no role for a mass communications effort while the public doesn't trust your desire to resolve your responsibilities.
CEOs need to be reminded to be humble in their declarations of social leadership. The idea of a multi-billion dollar company being "green" is almost ridiculous, since the phrase has no agreed-upon meaning and there is always something more you can do. That's one reason that "sustainability" has gained favor as a goalset for corporate leaders. To be sustainable means that you bring social, environmental, economic and cultural considerations into your decisions, and that you're setting up your enterprise to be profitable for years to come. When it comes to communications, the best way to be humble is to listen to your employees, customers and the community. Chevron tried to do this by creating a fake dialogue; if you fake it you'll rapidly find that you'll be in dialogue with someone like the Yes Men.
3) Let your employees lead.
Employees need to be a primary audience for your communications. They're the ones who have to live with your reputation day in and day out. One employee at a large Midwestern conglomerate once told me that his company's poor reputation became uncomfortable for him whenever he went to an out-of-state funeral. "There's nothing worse," he told me, "than having someone feel so compelled to attack your company that he'd interrupt your mourning to do so." A poor reputation will affect your stock price, but it's much more strongly felt by your employees when they go home to their kids every night. These employees have an extraordinary motivation to help you solve whatever problem you face; inviting them into the solution and goal-setting process will empower them to share your message. Their private conversation at funerals and on Twitter will be much more effective at swaying the public than any ad campaign.
4) Set North Star Goals. A North Star Goal is an aspirational goal that combines your business objectives with a higher purpose. These goals, which are being set by an increasing number of Fortune 500 companies, have the following attributes:
Actionable by everyone in the company
Tied into the core of the business
Inspirational to your employees and customers
Achievable in 5 - 15 years
In service of a cause larger than making money
Companies that are setting North Star Goals are finding that by being in step with society's demands bold forces come to their aid.
Starbucks' North Star Goal is ethically sourcing every cup of coffee and making every cup either recyclable or reusable.
Toyota's North Star Goal is to make cars that never crash and clean the air as they drive.
P&G's North Goal is to sell $50 billion in sustainable-innovation products and send zero consumer or manufacturing waste to landfills.
No doubt we'll still see a few last campaigns like Chevron's "We Agree" campaign. But you can be comforted by the thought that those campaigns will do more to harm the companies they represent than help them.
Demonizing processed food may be dooming many to obesity and disease. Could embracing the drive-thru make us all healthier?
Late last year, in a small health-food eatery called Cafe Sprouts in Oberlin, Ohio, I had what may well have been the most wholesome beverage of my life. The friendly server patiently guided me to an apple-blueberry-kale-carrot smoothie-juice combination, which she spent the next several minutes preparing, mostly by shepherding farm-fresh produce into machinery. The result was tasty, but at 300 calories (by my rough calculation) in a 16-ounce cup, it was more than my diet could regularly absorb without consequences, nor was I about to make a habit of $9 shakes, healthy or not.
Inspired by the experience nonetheless, I tried again two months later at L.A.’s Real Food Daily, a popular vegan restaurant near Hollywood. I was initially wary of a low-calorie juice made almost entirely from green vegetables, but the server assured me it was a popular treat. I like to brag that I can eat anything, and I scarf down all sorts of raw vegetables like candy, but I could stomach only about a third of this oddly foamy, bitter concoction. It smelled like lawn clippings and tasted like liquid celery. It goes for $7.95, and I waited 10 minutes for it.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Heather Armstrong’s Dooce once drew millions of readers. Her blog’s semi-retirement speaks to the challenges of earning money as an individual blogger today.
The success story of Dooce.com was once blogger lore, told and re-told in playgroups and Meetups—anywhere hyper-verbal people with Wordpress accounts gathered. “It happened for that Dooce lady,” they would say. “It could happen for your blog, too.”
Dooce has its origin in the late 1990s, when a young lapsed Mormon named Heather Armstrong taught herself HTML code and moved to Los Angeles. She got a job in web design and began blogging about her life on her personal site, Dooce.com.
The site’s name evolved out of her friends’ AOL Instant-Messenger slang for dude, or its more incredulous cousin, "doooood!” About a year later, Armstrong was fired for writing about her co-workers on the site—an experience that, for a good portion of the ‘aughts, came known as “getting dooced.” She eloped with her now ex-husband, Jon, moved to Salt Lake City, and eventually started blogging full time again.
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
Encouraging a focus on white identity is a dangerous approach for a country in which white supremacy has been a toxic force.
Donald Trump and the disaffected white people who make up his base of support have got me thinking about race in America. “Trump presents a choice for the Republican Party about which path to follow––” Ben Domenech writes in an insightful piece at The Federalist, “a path toward a coalition that is broad, classically liberal, and consistent with the party’s history, or a path toward a coalition that is reduced to the narrow interests of identity politics for white people.”
When I was growing up in Republican Orange County during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, lots of white parents sat their kids in front of The Cosby Show, explained that black people are just like white people, and inveighed against judging anyone by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. The approach didn’t convey the full reality of race as minorities experience it. But it represented a significant generational improvement in race relations.
After a lackluster summer, the famous neurosurgeon is finally surging—but his reliance on the conservative grassroots might be a burden as much as a boon.
The Ben Carson surge that everyone was waiting for is finally here.
The conservative neurosurgeon has been a source of fascination for both the Republican grassroots and the media ever since he critiqued President Obama, who was seated only a few feet away, at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. He’s been a steady, if middling, presence in GOP primary polls for most of the year—always earning at least 5 percent, but rarely more than 10. Yet over the last two weeks, Carson has secured a second-place spot after Donald Trump, both nationally and in the crucial opening battleground of Iowa, where he is a favorite of the state’s sizable evangelical community. A Monmouth University poll released this week even showed him tied with Trump for the lead in Iowa, at 23 percent.
The man who made computers personal was a genius and a jerk. A new documentary wonders whether his legacy can accommodate both realities.
An iPhone is a machine much like any other: motherboard, modem, microphone, microchip, battery, wires of gold and silver and copper twisting and snaking, the whole assembly arranged under a piece of glass whose surface—coated with an oxide of indium and tin to make it electrically conductive—sparks to life at the touch of a warm-blooded finger. But an iPhone, too, is much more than a machine. The neat ecosystem that hums under its heat-activated glass holds grocery lists and photos and games and jokes and news and books and music and secrets and the voices of loved ones and, quite possibly, every text you’ve ever exchanged with your best friend. Thought, memory, empathy, the stuff we sometimes shorthand as “the soul”: There it all is, zapping through metal whose curves and coils were designed to be held in a human hand.
Some Republican candidates are promoting a policy change that would hurt workers by disguising it with a pleasant-sounding phrase.
Americans like their Social Security benefits quite a bit: They oppose cuts to them by a margin of two to one. Even Millennials, who won’t be seeing benefits anytime soon, feel protective of Social Security, according to a poll from the Pew Research Center.
One way to effectively cut Social Security benefits is to raise the age at which they kick in. And yet, when asked specifically about raising the retirement age, Americans are mixed.
Perhaps confusion arises because “raising the age of retirement” sounds like a nice jobs program for older Americans, or an end to forced retirement. I sympathize with that position: Anyone who wants to retire later and work into old age should have a job. But that’s not what raising the retirement age would entail—the fact is, raising the Social Security retirement age represents a reduction in benefits: Because the monthly payments a person receives grow bigger the later in life he or she retires, raising the age cutoff reduces the total amount of money paid out.
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
According to new research, between 2009 and 2014, wage loss across all jobs averaged 4 percent. But for those in the bottom quintile, those losses averaged 5.7 percent.
Since the recession officially ended in 2009, Americans have watched the economy slowly improve: More people are back to work, unemployment has decreased 4.9 percentage points from its height, and economic growth is slowly increasing, up 2.4 percent in 2014. But there are those who haven’t seemed to benefit much from these gains. A recent report from the National Employment Labor Project (NELP) found that for workers in the lowest-paying jobs things have actually gotten worse.
According to NELP’s report, the real unemployment rate—which would also count those who are working part-time who would rather be working full time—remains above 10 percent though the national average is currently listed as almost half that, at 5.1 percent. It’s also worth noting that improvement in unemployment has been vastly uneven, and problems of long-term unemployment, discouraged workers, and low labor-force participation are still plaguing the U.S. labor market.