Raise your hand if you’ve never heard of breast cancer. How about AIDS? Do heart disease, leukemia, or diabetes ring a bell? You may not have been aware of ALS, or amylotrophic lateral sclerosis, until recently… although you probably have heard of its common name, Lou Gehrig’s disease. What about domestic violence? Are you just now realizing that sometimes people are the victims of violence at the hands of their significant others? I’m going to guess that you have heard of all of these diseases, and that you have known for a long time that there are people who assault and victimize their romantic partners. So why do I ask? Because apparently there are many big, brand-name corporations who want to “raise awareness” of these issues by selling you their products.
The fact that corporations profit from these so-called “awareness” campaigns is not surprising. I have been wary for years of the now-ubiquitous October “pink ribbon” campaigns for breast cancer. And lest I be misunderstood, let me state right now that I absolutely support activities and charities that actually raise significant sums to help fight diseases or help the victims of domestic violence. Of course I want there to be cures for cancer and debilitating diseases, and of course I want the domestic violence victims to have the support and resources to escape abuse. But when brands and their corporate parents throw their weight behind these causes by offering their products for sale and promising that a portion of the proceeds will benefit the cause, I am skeptical and cynical. I don’t doubt that there are individuals within corporations who do care about these causes, but let’s be honest: big brands use their breast cancer campaigns to make money, bottom line – and to build a reserve of social capital by appearing to be a warm and caring champion for women rather than a corporate behemoth that is beholden to shareholders and the profit motive. Lest I seem too cynical, bear in mind that these breast cancer “awareness” campaigns frequently raise tiny fractions of money, but buy their corporate backers enormous – and unearned – goodwill from an uncritical public. These campaigns have been dubbed “pinkwashing” by those who see them for what they are. Take the NFL as one example: according to The Guardian, “The NFL is exploiting breast cancer for its own gain and setting a pathetic example for big business: with nearly $10bn in annual revenue, they have given a mere $4.5m to breast cancer research since the pink misdirection play began.” Ok, so $4.5 million dollars is not nothing; but it is a drop in the bucket for a megabusiness (or shall I say, an untaxed non-profit!) like the NFL – and the money they contribute comes from sales of merchandise to consumers, not from the NFL’s own pockets. Adding insult to injury, that money is only 8 percent of the total that is spent by consumers to buy the NFL’s pinkwashed merchandise.
The NFL is actually the reason I bring up this topic in the first place. They have started a new “awareness” campaign regarding the socially conscious topic du jour: domestic violence. Their campaign – which I won’t link to, but which you can find on your own if you so desire – is called “No More.” In the article “No More, The NFL’s Domestic Violence Partner, Is A Sham,”Deadspindeconstructs the branding of causes by corporations in general and focuses on the NFL in particular. In the spirit of pinkwashing, I am dubbing this phenomenon “brandwashing.” No More is explicit in its acknowledgement that the NFL needed to “brand” its anti-domestic violence campaign. The article juxtaposes this with the origins of the red AIDS ribbon, which grew organically out of a desperate desire by early AIDS activists to bring attention to a plight that at the time was truly in need of awareness-raising. Of course now, AIDS is used by corporations to give a rosy glow of social consciousness to their brand in the same way that the pinkwashing of breast cancer does, and with just as little actual positive impact on the cause.
Ultimately, the NFL is trying to get off easy with its cynical use of No More to “raise awareness” of an issue that people everywhere are already aware of; and in fact, are even more aware of in light of the NFL’s kid-glove treatment of the domestic violence (and child abuse and violent crime) perpetrators in its midst. But to me, the most horrifying thing about this is that the “awareness raising” of the NFL’s domestic violence brand is based on selling merchandise and asking people to buy things rather than directly contributing to the cause they pretend to be concerned about (for a graphic arts take on this, see the powerful poster created by my friend David Bernie). Since when does buying a case for your iPhone, or a t-shirt, or a mug, do anything to help cancer victims or AIDS patients or those suffering from domestic violence? The Deadspin article puts it best: “What good this does for people in need of help isn’t always clear, but it’s great for the brands, because all they have to do is slap logos on a few products and/or advertisements and throw a few pennies to charity to make themselves seem socially conscious.” Let’s be clear: the NFL is brandwashing this problem to make it go away and make the league look good in the process, not because they care about domestic violence.
Let me conclude by reiterating that I am completely behind honest efforts to raise money and do concrete things to solve some of our greatest medical and social problems – but brandwashing is not the way to do it.
If you really want to do something to help end domestic violence, here are a few places to start. The best way to help is to donate money directly to the charity of your choice – or, if you can, volunteer. That will do a lot more than “raising awareness” by drinking coffee out of a No More mug.