Our kids may care about brands, but do brands really care about kids? | David Mitchell
Sunday, 21 February 2010 00:07
Bakers said I was "too hammy" to play a sausage roll.

I suppose it's just cold hard economic reality. Dubit, which specialises in getting kids to market to kids, is only paying its school-age "brand ambassadors" £25 a week. I was asking twice that. These rewards, paid in vouchers for the very products they're peddling, are for mentioning "key campaign messages to friends, both on and offline" about brands such as Fanta, Nintendo, Cheestrings and the new Barbie MP3 player. Crap, basically.

The young recruits are exhorted to be subtle: "Write down the key points in your own words and make sure it doesn't sound too rehearsed… Don't start a chat about the project – it's best to look for natural opportunities to drop it into the conversation." It's great to find multinational corporations investing in the future of British espionage.

This is one of those odd news stories where you feel you're supposed to baulk at the new low that corporations have sunk to but don't because you're surprised they've only just sunk to it. It's like when Gregory Peck died and people responded: "I didn't know he was still alive!" to which you can only answer: "Well, he isn't." I assumed companies had been up to this kind of shit for years – it's rather nice that things weren't as bad as I thought, even if they were inexorably becoming so.

Public limited companies are amoral. They're driven purely by their constitutional requirement to turn as large a profit as possible for their shareholders. People can be good or evil, ambitious or lazy, angry or fearful – plcs are none of these things. They unthinkingly, unswervingly, pursue money – that is their programming.

To this end, they'd murder or steal if it weren't for the risk of prosecution, and do so in its absence. People are different. While the law is a disincentive, the main reason most of us don't kill, punch or burgle is that we think it's wrong and consequently prefer not to. Corporations have no such moral sense.

I'm not an anti-capitalist. I really don't think this amorality is a problem, as long as it's understood. If you walk into the lion's enclosure at a zoo and the lion eats you, it's your fault. When we expect large companies to act out of motives other than financial self-interest, we only have ourselves to blame.

When Dairy Milk sold out to Cheese Slices last month, the only surprise was that anyone was surprised. All businesses have their price – it's actually listed – and the consequent, regrettable job losses are not because of a sudden lapse of conscience at Cadbury; from the day its stock was floated, it didn't have a conscience, any more than a circular saw has a soul or a great white shark a sense of irony.

The only problem is the sentimentality, nostalgia and disapproval which we lavish on institutions with the ethics of inanimate objects. The outcry about the Cadbury sale and the recruitment of child marketers reveals a deep-seated naivety in our approach to the companies we give money to. We should save our breath – our disapproval means nothing to them unless we stop buying their stuff or make what they do illegal. Anything that is legal and profitable they will eventually do.

Plcs ruthlessly exploit our willingness to believe that they have a heart by associating themselves with charities or providing equipment for schools. Cadbury tried this a few years ago with their "Get Active" campaign which, farcically, was endorsed by the government. Children were encouraged to collect thousands of chocolate wrappers to earn sports equipment. Tesco and Sainsbury's have similar campaigns today.

What worries me is that anyone genuinely believes that a supermarket chain might care about education. It doesn't and it can't. Companies wouldn't give anything to schools if it didn't make them money in the long run by enhancing their brand. And it only enhances their brand because we fail to see through their self-serving rhetoric. If the relationship between customer and corporation were as fairly understood by the former as the latter, such schemes wouldn't exist because no customer would be impressed by them.

"Well, wouldn't that be a shame for schools?" you might say. Not really. Companies would have to woo us honestly, with better services or lower prices, and would be unable to cream off enough to sling a few coppers in our education system's begging hat. But customers could always spend their saving on schools, directly or through taxation, rather than via the purchase of 2,000 creme eggs, 4% of the value of which would go towards a basketball hoop.

Drinks companies' reluctance to print the gut-rotting nature of their products on the bottles was deemed "very disappointing" by the government last week. Apparently only 15% of booze labelling is as doom-laden as had been agreed in a voluntary code and ministers are now worried they'll have to make a law.

Their disappointment is disappointing. Unless the industry thinks that a law is otherwise inevitable, of course it'll drag its feet about the voluntary code. It wants to sell alcohol and warning labels might put off the less committed lushes. So save your disappointment when they lie, Gepetto. Little Diageo is never going to be a real boy.

Ultimately I'm arguing for cynicism. We should at least try to withhold our emotions from the corporations we trade with. They don't deserve our fondness, our hatred or, crucially, our trust. Let's save all that for people. It would solve a lot of problems: we wouldn't need to ban confectionery commercials, or repackage Harvey's Bristol Cream with a big picture of cirrhosis on it, because we'd already suspect products' claims. We'd stop assuming that everything was safe unless marked "dangerous".

We need big corporations – they employ us, they sell us things, they make money for our pensions – but they need us more. They're only robot tradesmen and they should know their place.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/feb/21/david-mitchell-kraft-cadbury


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