Corporate Social Responsibility: Its Extension to Consumer Advertising Imagery
The last few decades have seen the emergence of two trends that have important implications for the field of consumer advertising. The first trend, as indicated in Gulas and Mckeage's literature review, is a growing body of research evidence that the imagery projected in consumer advertising has psychological and sociological effects.
This indicates that consumer advertising imagery is now being measured for its possible effect on consumer psychology and social behavior. The second trend, which is related to the first, can be seen in the widely acknowledged public demand that businesses need to demonstrate their social responsibility and conscience in all forms of organizational activity. These two trends make it evident that advertisers and their agencies can no longer defend socially irresponsible advertising imagery by using the traditional argument that consumer advertising merely mirrors society. Instead, as this paper will establish, organizations must now accept that corporate social responsibility extends to evaluating consumer advertising imagery for any possible adverse effect on social values and lifestyles.
The very purpose of consumer advertising is to create the desire for a particular product or brand among a target group. One reliable method that has always been used to achieve this objective has been to build idealized imagery of beautiful people, their attributes, and the enviable lifestyles they lead. This method is adopted on the theory that the images will be transferred to the advertised product by association. However, a growing body of research evidence now indicates that the cumulative effect of such images results in affecting the psychology of individual consumers, and overall social values.
These effects, in fact, have been studied in areas ranging from the promotion of unhealthy products and lifestyles to the inadvertent negative consequences of portraying idealized body images in advertising.
The recent scholarly and public debate on the adverse effects of consumer advertising imagery is not an isolated trend. On the contrary, this trend must necessarily be understood in the context of public demand that organizations conduct their business in a socially responsible manner. As Metzler points out, "organizational legitimacy is important to organizations because it represents a type of social contract that enables an organization to continue to operate." It follows, therefore, that organizations must necessarily ensure that all business activity is conducted in accordance with a socially accepted "normative and value basis."
Thus, it is hardly surprising that the imagery reflected in consumer advertising is now increasingly under scrutiny for any possible adverse effects on social values and lifestyles. More important, this implies that corporates can no longer delineate consumer advertising imagery from the values espoused by organizational culture and other practices. For, any negligence in evaluating the social impact of consumer brand advertising could lead to damaging organizational legitimacy itself.
But perhaps the boomerang effect of manipulative advertising imagery on corporate reputations is best established through citing the example of the tobacco industry. Today, the list of accusations against tobacco companies ranges from failure to disclose information on the harmful effects of smoking to deliberately projecting smoking as a socially desirable behavior. In connection with the last, it is interesting to note that the advertising agency responsible for the creation of the "Marlboro Man" has actually gone on record to say, "We asked ourselves what was the most generally accepted symbol of masculinity in America." After reviewing several hundreds of such tobacco related advertising documents, Clive Bates and Pauline Doyle conclude that tobacco advertising deliberately motivated consumers to smoke through the association of socially desirable values such as asserting one's masculinity or sex appeal with the act of smoking a cigarette.
This, in spite of the tobacco industry being well aware that the consumption of tobacco was harmful to consumer health!
Ultimately, the tobacco industry paid a steep price for indulging in socially irresponsible advertising for decades. For, today, tobacco firms have to contend with not just a total advertising ban of tobacco products, but worse, with loss of credibility and organizational reputation. Indeed, Metzler effectively establishes this point in her analysis of Philip Morris's "Working to make a difference, the people of Philip Morris" image advertising. Although the campaign in question highlights the corporation's humane work in communities, and concern over social issues such as family abuse, Metzler contends that, the effort has come too late to establish Philip Morris as a socially responsible company. Further, since the communication does not directly address public concern over the tobacco issues and instead attempts to deflect attention towards the organization's other activities, Metzler opines that it fails to establish Philip Morris's organizational legitimacy.
Thus, Metzler infers that organizational legitimacy is best established through concrete, corrective measures, which should be done on a proactive and not reactive basis. In other words, Metzler's analysis implies the need for organizations to reflect a social conscience in their advertising and other activities on an ongoing basis.
In fact, the conclusion reached from Metzler's analysis is borne out by the experience of the alcoholic beverage industry. Well aware that the consumption of alcohol can adversely affect the health and family life of consumers, several alcoholic beverage firms such as Coors and Seagram have long invested in efforts to prevent alcohol abuse. These firms achieve this through educational advertising messages and other programs on the risks inherent in abusing alcohol, or driving while under the influence of alcohol.
Thus, by reflecting their social conscience in their advertising, these firms have managed to maintain their organizational legitimacy and reputation in spite of marketing potentially harmful products.
Of course, the examples of tobacco and alcohol may be exceptional in that they represent the marketing and promotion of unhealthy products. However, this does not mean that other, more innocuous product categories are exempt from the need to examine their consumer advertising imagery. For, as Lata Subramanian, an advertising professional who has worked with agencies such as Lowe and Grey in India, observes, "corporate and consumer brand legitimacy is best established through reliable and safe products, customer service and palpable organizational concern for the environment, community, and all stakeholder groups." In fact, according to Lata, where there is genuine corporate and brand legitimacy, the task of advertising is made easier since all such advertising has to do is then focus on such facts. More often than not, unfortunately, most brands lack true competitive edges or organizational credentials. In such cases, advertising strategy is forced to fall back on idealized imagery and implied social benefits to sell a particular brand.
Lata's point is, in fact, reflected in Kahle's suggestion that businesses can use aspirational social values and lifestyles to market their brands: "Because values influence the way in which consumers react to product offerings, advertising, packaging, pricing, personal selling, and retailing, the effective marketer should be aware of this influence and incorporate it when developing marketing strategy, when planning products, and when communicating with consumers."
Thus, the use of idealized advertising imagery and desired social benefits to sell brands brings into focus the overall role of consumer advertising in influencing social values and behavior. Or, as observed earlier, the propensity of consumer advertising to rely on associations with an idealized social lifestyle. For, this propensity has now been identified by several research studies as encouraging consumers to compare their self-image with a projected ideal. While, some researchers acknowledge that such comparisons may exercise a positive influence by acting as a motivator for self-development, most conclude that, too often, such comparisons are unwarranted and socially undesirable. These researchers, therefore, argue that the comparisons generated by advertising imagery adversely affect consumer psychology and social behavior.
One area where such undesirable comparisons are seen to emerge is in the body image perceptions of women. Indeed, it is disturbing to note that several research studies have found a link between the idealized body images of women in advertising and the growing incidence of health disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. True, that many of these studies have based their findings on advertising content analysis, which reveals a trend towards projecting the ideal woman as getting progressively slimmer. However, there are some studies such as the one conducted by Frank Biocca and Philip Myers that establish a connection between ideal body images in advertising and a woman's psychological reactions vis-a-vis her own body image. In fact, Biocca and Myers infer that television commercials in particular may have a motivating effect in terms of encouraging a belief that it is possible to be as thin as the models depicted.
While it is true that various social stimuli work together in molding social values and attitudes, this does not mean that advertising can absolve itself of all responsibility. On the contrary, advertisers need to accept that the persuasive, emotional power of advertising imagery can prove to be more powerful than, for example, the rational reasoning used by family and educational counseling. In fact, as Biocca and Myers point out, one needs to also consider the cumulative effect of ideal body stereotypes that pervade advertising…