Selling Virtue: Pandering ad campaigns

Pandering ad campaigns from Chevron, Starbucks, Liberty Mutual, and Barack Obama.

Pandering ad campaigns from Chevron, Starbucks, Liberty Mutual, and Barack Obama.

Media criticism.
Jan. 23 2009 7:07 PM

Selling Virtue

Pandering ad campaigns from Chevron, Starbucks, Liberty Mutual, and Barack Obama.

Chevron ad.
Chevron advertisement

When I go shopping for moral instruction, I don't drive the family van to corporate America's front door. Their job is to make good stuff for me to buy at a good price, not lecture me on the virtuous life. Yet that's the tack a slew of companies have been taking with ad campaigns that march up to my front door like an army of Mormon missionaries and bang loudly.

Traditionally, big companies did good things like planted trees or reduced waste or rescued orphans and bragged about it in hopes that you'd buy their product. Nowadays, they want you to right the world's perceived wrongs so they can take the credit for it.

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The most cretinous of the current "stolen virtue" campaigns comes from Chevron. Its "I Will" promotion, launched last fall, is "designed to raise awareness of the importance of energy efficiency and conservation," according to the company. The campaign's placards—viewable at the company's www.willyoujoinus.com Web site—are unavoidable on Washington buses and subways. The TV spots have aired during the Sunday political talk shows.

"I will leave the car at home more," reads the tag line on one of the print ads. "I will finally get a programmable thermostat," reads the second. "I will use less energy," says the third. Seeing as Chevron makes money every time you use their energy products, why is it trying to guilt us into using less? It's as if General Motors suddenly started running ads pleading with customers to drive their cars for another 10 years before buying a new one.

Although Chevron frames its campaign as being about energy conservation, that's a bunch of hooey. All other things being constant, if every gullible soul riding Washington's buses and trains performed the simple conservation miracles Chevron proposes, energy consumption would fall, and so would prices. As prices fell, the nongullible would take advantage of the depressed prices to consume more and thus drive the price back up.

But the Chevron campaign isn't about logic, otherwise it wouldn't be hectoring subway- and bus-riders who alreadyleft the car at home to leave the car at home. Chevron's unofficial subtext is climate change, which its ads never mention. The company wants to forestall any regulation or taxation of its carboniferous products and hopes that by encouraging the public to engage in saintly acts of self-denial ("Join us in one of the most important efforts of our time—using less," the ads implore), it will duck congressional intervention. (The League of Conservation Voters, whose views I don't endorse, offers this clever parody of the Chevron shill.)

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Ranking second on my corporate ick list is Starbucks. Its "I'm In" project, riffing off of President Barack Obama's call to national service, hopes to "raise one million hours of service across America." Here's the deal: Visit a Starbucks by Jan. 25, fill out a card pledging to do five hours of volunteer work, and the shop will give you a free cup of coffee.

Starbucks says its motives are noble: To simplify volunteerism and "empower" customers to "give back to their communities." I find this explanation as palatable as a week-old pot of room-temperature robusta. If Starbucks were serious about national service, it would give its employees five hours a month of paid time to do publicly minded work—or it would ask customers to give up their extra-hot, no-foam venti skim lattes for a week and donate the money to charity.

Obviously, the greatest beneficiary of this promotion is Starbucks. Harnessing its customers' altruism for the price of a cup of brewed coffee—one of the cheapest items on the menu, I should add—the company burnishes its calculated lifestyle image by defining volunteerism as part of the Starbucks gestalt. We may be making billions from selling you a luxury item, but we're a good company, and you're a good person, the promotion says.

More reasons to be suspicious of the Starbuck initiative: Both Oprah Winfrey and Jon Bon Jovi saluted it on her show.

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The screwiest of the do-good campaigns is "The Responsibility Project" from the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. It probably won't ring a bell unless you've seen its TV commercials, in which viewers are implored to do the right thing for a stranger (picking up a shard of broken glass at a fairground, yanking a fellow pedestrian out of the path of an oncoming car, etc.). For more of this easy treacle, I encourage you to view the "Films" section of the company's Web site for vignettes about a slacker who suddenly grows up, a broken chair's odyssey in an office, and the crisis averted at a lighthouse.

The films don't stink. What stinks is Liberty Mutual's exploitation of our goodness. What I want from my insurance company is low premiums and good service, but that's not what Liberty Mutual wants to sell me. It wants me to believe that "Liberty Mutual is all about doing the right thing," to crib from the project's Web site, which also brags that its executives serve on boards (Boston Ballet, Bentley College, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Red Cross, and others) and that the company funds a golf tournament, and underwrites the Fourth of July celebration in Boston, and sponsors a firefighter award, and gives to a PBS history program, and more and more.

That's wonderful, but all those good works hardly distinguish Liberty Mutual from hundreds of other companies, or dozens of other insurers who are as much into responsibility as Liberty Mutual. What insurance company isn't? The more responsible people are, the fewer claims that will be filed and paid out. At Liberty Mutual, responsibility is just code for "let's make more money."

Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. has already parlayed Obama's inaugural speech, laden as it was with references to "responsibility," into a Web site film. I found Obama's speech as irksome as any corporate homily because he, too, can't bring himself to specifics when talking about a "new era of responsibility."

Like some Madison Avenue pitchman, there Obama was on the steps of the Capitol, yapping platitudes about "duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly." Did he hint at the particulars? If this president thing doesn't work out, he and his speechwriting team should consider advertising.

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Obama said, "The time has come to set aside childish things." Or was it Liberty Mutual? Which childish things does he want us to set aside? It will take a SWAT team to remove the rubber duck of my youth from my premises. What childish things of yours does Obama want you to set aside? Send your answers to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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