The problem with corporate feel good ad campaigns

A few years back, a high-brow green publication brought out by one of India’s oldest and highly-respected conservation bodies ran an unusual advertisement that flaunted the photograph of an open cast mine on its back cover. “If you can’t grow it or hunt it,” it screamed, “you have to mine it.”

“If it is not a plant or an animal then it is a mineral,” the advertisement went on to elaborate in smaller print. “Mining provides the raw material and energy resources needed to sustain modern civilisation.” Many would concur but the commercial put out by “the first private company in India to receive a licence for export of high grade iron ore” was a terrible misfit in a publication that has been vociferously campaigning against unsustainable extractive use of natural resources.

The advertiser in question claims to have the largest installed capacity of green energy in the country and was awarded the first prize by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy for “its excellence as an independent power producer under wind energy programme during the 10th Plan period (2002-2007). On the other hand, the company was also charged with encroachment of forestland for dumping mining waste in Karnataka.

So, was it fine for a conservation organisation -- often entrusted with the critical task of assessing the environmental feasibility of proposed mining projects by the government -- to put such an advertisement in its publication?

Are some brands facing flak due to association with certain projects? AFP

Are some brands facing flak due to association with certain projects? AFP

But then, oil, energy and even real estate or transport companies have been the biggest donors world over to conservation NGOs. Oil major ExxonMobil, for example, claims to have donated nearly $1.3 million to organizations dedicated to biodiversity protection in 2012 alone. The same year it was fined a record £2.8 million for undeclared emission in Scotland.

The problem is even trickier for the media. In a democracy, everyone including the devil has the right to tell his or her side of the story. In a sense, the media is obliged to provide that space. But what about lies peddled in the garb of promotion? As far as editorial content is concerned, no media outlet can shirk the responsibility of checking every claim made in every story, including quotes and talking heads. For advertisements, it is often impossible to check every insertion for its veracity. Most publications carry the disclaimer that they are not responsible for the content of any ad.

And these often do more harm than the over-promising fairness cream or weight loss ad running unchecked. Even when a feel-good campaign by the controversial Vedanta group gets exposed for its hypocrisy, the “Creating Happiness” campaign continued to be flashed on front pages and during prime time television across the media spectrum. Clearly, a lot of money is at stake at all times.

Since last week, a Greenpeace campaign against an English news channel for partnering with Monsanto for a series titled “Changing Lives”, has been gathering support. Honestly, it is rather amusing to read the shock and betrayal in the comments left by those who signed the petition in the social media. “How could a channel that does so much for the green cause let us down” has been the sentiment.

Brand Monsanto, for obvious reasons, evokes strong reactions. I am not sure if so many would have taken notice if, say, DuPont, the other big peddler of genetically-modified food, was involved instead. More importantly, our surface knowledge of brands tends to gloss over the reality. The said channel’s much-acclaimed commitment to tiger conservation emphasized by daylong annual jamborees is backed by a philanthropist who matches up the entire fund raised through donations big and small from his own admittedly very deep pocket.

What are the associations and interests of this philanthropist who also runs a mega conservation trust that constitutes the backbone – both financially and technically -- of the channel’s popular green shows? He is the chairman of a consultancy that serves clients in the power, road and related infrastructure industries, including Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd, which has been charged with rooting for a number of environmentally damaging projects such as the 775 MW Luhri project on the Satluj river in upper Shimla.

He is also the director of a textile mill in Mumbai that, apparently with an eye on realty, held on to the land leased to it and tried to stall the decongestion drive in the city after the recurrent floods. He is also a non-executive director of a chemical company that produces a range of agrochemicals from insecticides and pesticides to weedicides, herbicides and fungicides. These are all legitimate businesses but not exactly in harmony with the pledge of saving the planet, its soil, water and forests.

Conflict of interest, then, is merely a relative, subject to our perception and compulsion. “In this complicated, interdependent world,” as the National Geographic Society put it (my last week’s article), “every company and every individual at some point unavoidably does business–directly or indirectly–with others who may not share the same philosophies and principles.”

The news channel in question, however, is on the backfoot. It has already removed the Facebook page of the soon-to-be launched series, its Twitter handle and also the promos from YouTube. But whether or not it eventually drops Monsanto as the sponsor is immaterial to the larger picture of credibility unless every media house comes clean with an advertisement policy.

Updated Date: Jun 03, 2013 16:47 PM

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