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Consumer Awareness Rant

01.12.05 Thursday
01:28 pm - Consumer Awareness Rant Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Yesterday, in a conversation with starfish77 and belovedrooster (at a wonderful crepery on 611 Pine) we touched upon the topic of corporate public relations and consumer awareness.

The topic that sparked my rant was Victrola's press release (which influenced write-ups in a number of national papers, including the New York Times, I believe) regarding their decision to cut wireless internet on weekends. Instead of just acknowledging that during peak times (like weekends) the service cuts into their profit potential, they rationalized it as an effort to foster community by encouraging people to get out from behind their laptops and socialize. Ultimately, this was probably a smart move on their part. but it epitomizes what I often think of as a consumerist mindset that feels that the number one responsibility of businesses is to serve society and that the secondary interest is to make a profit. The first and foremost goal of business is to make a profit just as the first and foremost goal of most people who work is to make a profit.

At the core, I can't blame Victrola. I've worked in marketing, I've written press releases; I'm well aware of why spin marketing works. The whole goal is to position selfishly driven decisions as investments into your consumer. And sometimes this makes sense because consumers, like businesses, are self-driven. No one is going to buy a product that has a label exclaiming "Now with 30% less product so we can afford bigger yachts!", but if you position it as "Now with an ergonomic design that makes it easier to hold" it ties into individual's interests.

What bothers me is when this is taken to such an extreme that corporations are being completely false and, worse, consumers are buying it. I'm sure no one honestly believes it, of course; we're too cyncical about corporate motives. But if the corporation were honest about their objectives they'd be boycotted.

I deal with the same thing in business. Seasoned clients (higher up management and medium-sized-business owners) usually understand business at an objective level. They will negotiate but they're always aware that I need to make a profit. Not only that but many understand that the more profit I make the better quality product they will likely received; that there needs to be an incentive. This is what makes corporate sales fun; it's all about finding that balance between what they are willing and capable of paying while still making a profit for my firm. With lower level, younger or less experienced managers, however, they have a touch of this consumerist mentality; there is almost this unspoken expectation that I am there to cater to and serve their needs. The kiss of death with these clients is to acknowledge in any way that you are making a profit or that you might have selfish interests that aren't completely aligned with theirs. There is this naive egocentricism to it fueled by the flawed philosophy that "the customer comes first" (which is like saying that any person should put the needs of another above their own; unrealistic and ultimately unsustainable).

Those that know me know that I'm not idealistic enough to expect this to change. I understand, culturally, why people are this way. I understand why corporations respond to it. I understand the opposite extremes (where big businesses snowball consumer interests with monopolistic practices with no acknowledgement or respect for the long term consequences).

Still, I find it downright insulting when I open my email to see things like an advertisement from The Body Shop for the Until there is a cure AIDS awareness bracelet. For $25 you can show your support for AIDs. The email tells the consumer that the Body Shop is a progressive company that supports socially responsible interests such as AIDs prevention, awareness and support. What the email (and product details) fail to mention is that this is just a product; no percentage of the product is going to support AIDs research. Although, trust me, if it were then you can be sure you'd know about it; everytime I go to the Body Shop they are sure to tell me how wonderful of a business they are because they gave money to XYZ women's charity.

Of course, as mentioned, corporations are selfish. So perhaps there is benefit in humoring them by acting impressed by these trivial grants; it provides an incentive for them to continue them. And, ultimately, I don't care WHY people give money (I fully expect it to be selfishly driven) as long as they give it; charity or any socially responsible cause isn't in the position to look a gift horse in the mouth. That isn't going to stop me from getting grumpy, though, and excercizing my consumer rights (by not buying products or by writing bitchy rants like this) when corporations try to snowball me with the gimmic of compassion over self-interest.

{int i; i=49; i++}

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tyrven [01.12.05::10:23]
LJ was truncating my entry at the end of the link, for some reason. For those of you who must own the AIDs awareness bracelet, here you go.

Of course, I could go into how wearing this bracelet, regardless of where the money goes, is as much a sign of this socialist facade as anything the corporation is doing. Our need to parade our good deeds around for social acceptance is downright irritating and yet, at the same time, the entire selfish basis of WHY we give to others.

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xaotica [02.12.05::02:32]

my guess is that it is donating money ... 'cause the body shop buys the bracelets from these people. so altho the body shop is probably also profiting, the bracelet manufacturer is making whatever amount the body shop pays them.

i like the ones on their own website better. but i can't find anywhere that says how much of the money benefits aids patients
tyrven [02.12.05::09:44]
audiguy [02.12.05::10:37]
tyrven [02.12.05::09:05]
The Body Shop Bracelets - (Anonymous) [06.12.05::03:42]
Re: The Body Shop Bracelets - thaddeusquay [06.12.05::04:08]
Re: The Body Shop Bracelets - tyrven [06.12.05::04:30]
Re: The Body Shop Bracelets - lormagins [06.12.05::06:46]
Re: The Body Shop Bracelets - phunbee [07.12.05::12:40]
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gfrancie [01.12.05::10:28]
People like to feel good and like their charity/awareness easy. (bracelets)
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tyrven [01.12.05::10:45]
Exactly. But people are, apparently, too stupid to realize that these bracelets don't do a damned thing and that they'd be better of sending 5$ to an AIDs research company. But then they wouldn't get a bracelet to show off to their friends that they are good people.
gfrancie [01.12.05::10:55]
tyrven [01.12.05::11:02]
gfrancie [02.12.05::12:22]
tyrven [02.12.05::12:35]
gfrancie [02.12.05::12:39]
xaotica [02.12.05::02:33]
tyrven [02.12.05::03:22]
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popcultureicon [01.12.05::10:30]
at my work, we have a mission statement.
or a speaking of our truth, whatever you want to call it.
"to be the most loved seller of books and music in america"
it's that kind of bullshit that irritates me to no end.
it goes on further about "driving profits for shareholders through ultimate customer service" and what not.
but it's obvious in action that anyone who is General manager and above has only the profit interest in mind.
and when i am caught in the middle, having to pretend that the company i care about sees the customer as anything more than a walking credit card bothers me.

I even get that i have to be all touchey feely inorder to keep customers happy and therefore spending money here rather than online or somewhere less "friendly"

there are basically two points of friction in this lack of integrity.
GM and all lower staff, and staff and customers.

the one i care about, because i have to deal with it directly, is how annoying we as staff are when we have to get "aggressively courteous" on a customer.

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tyrven [01.12.05::10:52]
"Agressively courteous" hahah that's so fucking awesome. I'm going to borrow that nomenclature for institution within my business.

The idea of being the most loved seller of books doesn't bother me as much because if that were true then they're making a ton of money, so it's not counter to their real interest. I feel similarly about Microsoft's original goal to put a PC in every home. If every home had a PC (hahaha can you even IMAGINE?! What audacity!!!) then Microsoft would be making bank (hahah like anyone could make money off of an OPERATING SYSTEM nonetheless a Harvard drop out har har).

Still, though, I totally get what you're saying, especially between the disconnect between management and the people who are paid to care. Being professional and courteous is one thing; pretending to give a fuck is another.

It's like when you go to chain restaraunts and after three point two seconds the server turns around, flashes you a well-rehearsed smile and asks "How are you today?" in the most obviously scripted manner possible. I pretty consistently respond with "Do they require you to ask that?" at which point they usually relax, reassured that I'm not eating their bullshit, and actually come across as slightly human for a few seconds.
popcultureicon [01.12.05::10:59]
tyrven [01.12.05::11:40]
popcultureicon [01.12.05::11:47]
tyrven [02.12.05::12:07]
popcultureicon [02.12.05::12:11]
gfrancie [02.12.05::12:25]
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chris [01.12.05::10:57]
I dont know who owns victrola, nor do i ever go there but they might be a good candidate for what i'm about to propose: believe it or not, there's a lot of (especially small) business owners who are *not* primarily concerned with making a profit. Livejournal for example, though its not exactly 'small' anymore, brad has repeadetly stated that he's more interested in making the service good than making more money. (though, this might be related to the fact that their money has always been good anyway)

obviously anyone who owns a business is doing it for the money. otherwise it would be a non-profit, and not a business. Victrola might make a couple hundred extra bucks a day on weekends from a move like this, but ultimately i think it comes down to what kind of place you want to run. if they really wanted a feel-good place they'd turn wifi off all week. but thats because in any scenerio, there is a trade off, of course, between how much you can sacrifice for the cause of "good" or whatever you want to call it, and how much money you are going to make from your business. any place that calls itself "Internet Cafe" for example, is probably more interested in the internet part than the cafe part, and wouldn't make a move like this, though it might make them more money.

I think the bottom line of what I'm trying to get across is that while you usually shouldn't trust soft-and-fluffy sounding motives from big companies, or even small ones, that doesn't mean you should never take their word for anything they do. you just have to look a little deeper sometimes. there's certainly not as much money in recycled paper products as there is in say, defense contracting, but people still decide to go into those business. and though they may still make a lot of money, there's clearly another motivation behind it than just money.

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tyrven [01.12.05::11:28]
I started write a comment debating this, but I think you're right. While I ultimately don't believe that anyone does anything for truly selfless reasons, there are certainly shades of gray and, for whatever underlying motive (self-gratification, social acceptance, whatever) many people are driven by interests outside of money.

I've owned a small business for thirteen years now. A quality product (as I defined it) has always been a priority (at a huge cost to the business in terms of R+D, employee cost and even employee turn-over during periods where the industry valued profit over quality). Further, the firm has always donated a significant amount of time to charity, again as large costs to the business. My firm partners with a number of other small firms that share our values. I respect these firms because their owners aren't driven solely by profit; they aren't willing to be in business unless their quality standards, social values and lifestyle needs are supported.

There are two things that separate this from what I'm talking about. First off, outside of the above paragraph (which makes me want to vomit with the implied self-righteousness of it) I don't parade this around to milk marketing benefit out of it. Ultimately, my avoidance of this is not driven by any ethic as much as the fact that I know that my clients (and the clients that I prefer to work with) would detest such self-congratulatory nonsense.

Second, and of equal importance, I'm well aware that there are very self-centered motives around my decisions; it's not because I'm a good person (whatever the fuck that means). If I'm honest with myself (really honest) then it's clear that I do it because a) I feel "good" when I help others, b) it has unspoken marketing benefits (I don't need to parade this about; the people we help talk to others, c) it gives my employee's a sense of purpose and validation outside of being corporate tools, d) occassionally (not usually) I get tax benefits, and then (regarding quality) e) it means happier customers which means repeat business and referrals (which lowers marketing costs), f) I don't have the cost or stress of supporting faulty products, and g) I am able to save money in the long run by not having to reinvent the wheel (since our products are reusable and can be applied to multiple needs).

Other popular motives may include popularity, social acceptance, or fitting into a perceived role (such as the father figure role or the social benefactor role), all of which relate to the selfish motive of status and ego.

That said, I don't have a problem with people talking about this as much as them claiming it's their only motive. I gained tremendous respect for Tony Blair when he came out in a press conference and made it clear that the PRIMARY reason for going into Iraq was to secure financial interests but that it was a nice benefit that they happened to be removing a war criminal while they were at it. He got a lot of flack for that, but I much prefer it to the Bush approach which denies any selfish motives and pretends like it's motivated by the "common good" (which, I'm sure it was to an extent; many liberals initially supported Iraq for that reason).

Also, I should note that I've heard nothing but positive things about the people who own Victrola. I've met them once and they both seemed like nice people. I also really admire the small business coffee community in Seattle which has often worked together (at odds to selfish interests). For instance, when Victrola stopped using Vivace roasted beans, Vivace sent over people to help Victrola learn how to use their roaster. That impressed the hell out of me.
tyrven [01.12.05::11:32]
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chris [01.12.05::11:08]
and dont get me wrong, I agree that most of the time a big company says its doing something "for our customers" that there's some kind of ulterior motive behind it. Even last-ditch PR manouvers like wal-mart is doing right now are ultimately the idea that throwing a bit of money at a problem will save you a bunch in the long run if you can improve your image.
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tyrven [01.12.05::11:36]
Totally. Also, again, I don't really blame the companies such as the naive and unrealistic consumer expectation (which is a reaction to overly-greedy and selfishly-motivated corporations from the eighties, I'm certain) that companies not be profit-driven.

It is so refreshing when I can say to a client "I understand your motive, but I can't make a profit off of that" and they understand and negotiate accordingly. As opposed to a lot of salesmen who discredit perfectly good ideas because the client will never accept or work within the constraint of financial interests.
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phunbee [01.12.05::11:30]
I never thought about those action bracelets in that way before. I have a lot of them and they do seem to have a more bosting quality to them. Lok at me I support a cure for such and such! And if none of the money goes to AIDS research well then that's just ig'nant. This whole post makes me question why I work in activism. Stop making me think, Jeremy it hurts my little head!
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tyrven [01.12.05::11:38]
Oh, don't even get me started on activism... ;-) (Not that I haven't done plenty of activism over the last ten years)
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jessiesquash [02.12.05::12:34]
I'm totally put off by all these things done to "raise awareness" too. How about raising money? But it's a trend and one that people respond to. I think it's silly and you think it's silly but people like to feel that they're doing something without actually doing much and businesses are smart (if not kind of smarmy) to take advantage of this. Although I don't particularly respect The Body Shop's reasoning here, overall they are a fantastic company. They really do a lot and give a lot back but at the same time, they recognize that they are here to do business. I read the biography of Anita Roddick (the founder) awhile back and was really impressed by her. What I mean is, many large companies don't really give a shit about social concerns unless, like you said, it makes them look good but The Body Shop has been doing it from the beginning. In addition, they not only "raise awareness" and donate money but they also support fair trade and get involved. It's true that they have built up this image and it was a good business move but Roddick was an activist way before she ever thought of starting the business. I may be a bit blinded by how much I respect her but there you go.
I can see this particular issue being well deserved by companies like Walmart who makes all sorts of claims about what they do but only when they are feeling the pressure from the public.
And you are in some serious trouble for distracting me from my paper and being all thoughtful and stuff. Couldn't you have posted pictures tonight that I could look at and say, "ooh pretty!" and then move on? ;p
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karinkarinkarin [02.12.05::05:06]
What the email (and product details) fail to mention is that this is just a product; no percentage of the product is going to support AIDs research.

oh man.
when I went to the puyallup fair last year, they were selling those yellow ribbon magnets for your car that say 'support our troops' and some lady who was buying one asked if the proceeds went to the troops. the lady that was selling them visibly faltered, stunned, but it was so blatantly obvious that the answer was no. she managed to get out a strangled... "by buying it you're SHOWING your support for the troops." I nearly collapsed with laughter once I got away from the booth.
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tyrven [02.12.05::09:06]
That is so awesome! I wish I'd thought of that.
karinkarinkarin [03.12.05::02:29]
audiguy [02.12.05::10:27]
They could be like Microsoft or Sony where the customer is thought of as a criminal.

Ala Sony's Root Kit, or Microsoft's Activation then proof of authenticity, and maybe they'll add another thing on just for extra measure.

Sure I'd love to boycott both companies because of their business practices but its easier said then done.

Generally I believe that's its in a corporations best long term interest to not be evil. That it should align itself with social interests that serve its greater good. Like as far as I know Microsoft contributes to the EFF which ultimately serves the public. In that case its not just good public relations, but it also makes good business sense.

Sure I hate marketing gimps as much as anyone and they should rot in hell, but even with selfish interests at heart a businesses can do some major good (Relief funding, etc), and we just have to grin, and bear it when they won't shut up about it.

It would be nice if they were honest, but its just not very realistic. I mean could they really get away with "Now with 20% less overweight computer geeks" or something that was actually funny, but meant the same thing.
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tyrven [02.12.05::09:00]
"We just have to grin, and bear it when they won't shut up about it."

I agree with this. I don't expect anyone to do things because they are "selfless" or (truly) "compassionate", but this mistake of intentions doesn't change the fact that their contributions have a positive impact on the society as a whole. There is little benefit to challenging this; the more they are rewarded (no matter how much it makes us gag) the more they will do it.

Although, the main point of my post was pertaining to people who spin a decision or product as being philanthropic when, in fact, that has little to do with the decision (and may have no real philanthropic value, as with the WiFi or bracelet example).

And more to my point was the consumerist mindset that demands that companies pretend to be something they aren't. If consumers saw businesses the way businesses see businesses they would be no less cyncial but a lot more realistic.

tyrven [02.12.05::09:15]
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lormagins [02.12.05::04:11]
my general bitch about *any* charity bracelets, ribbons, pins or whatever is that it's just giving yourself a little visible medal or badge for what is *supposed* to be an altruistic act. which defeats the whole purpose, in my opinion. i absolutely refuse to get stickers or bracelets or whatever because #1, most of the money goes towards the producers of those damn things and #2, the whole point of charity is to do something out of the goodness of your heart. if you give, great. shouting out to the world that you gave to a charity just makes you look like an asshole that's desperate for some glorification or wanting to send a message of absolute self-righteousness to the world. e.g., "well, i support aids day, where's your red ribbon? you don't have one?? you obviously aren't supportive of those who have aids! i'm better than you because i gave. see? i have the ribbon to prove it!"

give me a fucking break. charity is about giving, not receiving kudos for doing so. if you are, you're not really being charitable and it's obvious you're only giving just to make yourself look good, and in reality you just look like a ponce.

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tyrven [02.12.05::09:08]
I agree. Although, at the same time, I have no expectations that people will do anything that isn't ultimately perceived to be in their best interest. But, as mentioned above, that doesn't mean that i have respect for those people.
thaddeusquay [05.12.05::12:24]
lormagins [06.12.05::06:34]
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wasta [04.12.05::06:52]
Thanks for writing that post. I'm not feeling one way or another about Victrola, but it was good to read the parts about business and profit. I've been a freelance artist for a number of years, and your post helped me to clarify some of my thinking. Just recently (in the last 2 years) I've been refusing jobs that don't offer me a profit (too much trouble for too little $), but it took a long time to get there.

As I'm starting out on a new facet of my business (photography), I'm doing a lot of free self-promotional work. I have really mixed feelings about it in terms of short term survival, but I've had a lot of fun (which counts for something) and I think it's a good way to get the word out. I don't however, want to be known as the guy who will work for free, so I like to set expectation with people I work for that I don't know.

Anyways... I'll be selling bracelets to support local starving artists. They'll come in all the colors of the Top Ramen flavors and have "Philistine pig-ignorance" emblazoned on them.
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tyrven [04.12.05::09:50]
When I started out doing internet development work, I worked for almost nothing. This gave me a lot of experience, contacts, a reputable portfolio and resume and, of course, confidence. I know a lot of people who are starting out who aren't willing to do that and I think it hurts them in the long run.

When doing pro-bono or discounted work in my business, we often make sure that the client understands the value of the work we're doing. I've been in situations where I'm doing a job for a tenth of its value but the client feels like they're paying full price (and has expectations accordingly). This is especially true for non-profits.

Something related that a photographer friend of mine noted the other day is how annoying it is when potential-customers assume that becuase you're outside of their budget that you're ripping them off. Again, I think consumer's get spoiled by mass-production and thus aren't capable of understanding the cost of original work. Since you can buy a print of a painting at Ikea for $30 they assume that an original painting will be more but within some reasonable variance (say, $80). If they actually thought about the implications of being original and the cost in terms of time and supplies they would certainly have a different perspective on it.

In general, the more my firm charges the more money we make. That may seem self-evident, but the unexpected lesson is that the more you charge the more respect people have for your work. If you're really good but sell your work at cutrate costs then people assume something is wrong with it. Likewise, people feel better if they're given some control over the price; if someone gets 10% off 2x they often feel better than if they spent 1x (without any negotiating right).

I'm rambling, though.

I want a Philistine Pig-Ignorance bracelet!
thaddeusquay [05.12.05::12:15]
1) "For $25 you can show your support for AIDs."

I can? I would give that much if I knew more people would get AIDS as a result.

2) "Now with 30% less product so we can afford bigger yachts!"

Ever since I've been reading, I feel that I've become 10% more than I was, without losing anything. Therefore, I am now 110% of my former self, without taking up any more space, or costing more. Essentially, I can now provide more value, at the same price.

3) Here's a business idea. You can go head-to-head with those bracelets by making a website which invites people to send in their receipts from donations to actual AIDS charities.

For a fee, you will laminate the receipt for them to wear like a "Badge of Honor", as your advertising will say, to make them stand out from those who buy the crappy, no-good bracelets. There will be a choice of lamination styles, including one where it says "I GAVE" on the top, and "FUCK OFF" on the bottom.

The fee will be on a sliding scale, determined by how much the charity to which they donated actually gives to AIDS R&D. The more the charity gives, the less you charge.
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tyrven [05.12.05::12:27]
hah that's the best idea ever.