Monday, May 6, 2013

The Company We Keep

It was a busy week for marketing controversies.

Mountain Dew pleaded guilty to using battered woman imagery and a racial stereotype to sell its neon green soda.

Hyundai pleaded guilty to dramatizing suicide while trying to demonstrate the value of clean air.

Actually, their pleas were guilty by association.

Mountain Dew, who cozied up with Tyler the Creator to gain access and credibility among his youthful following, happened to get a taste of that youth.  They learned that even though Mountain Dew was willing to let Tyler the Creator speak on behalf of the brand, in his youth he still viewed it as an opportunity to tell a "admittedly absurd story that was never meant to be taken seriously." Meanwhile, when Hyundai's distasteful car ad reached the light of day, they explained that the people they thought they trusted with their advertising acted “without Hyundai’s request or approval" and that the message this partner created runs counter to the values of their company.

These gaffes are often viewed under the same lens; nothing more than attention craving brands who desire fame but will might happily settle for infamy. People file under the "controversial marketing" category and everyone moves on.

However, a different story, unfolding halfway around the world, suggests that companies use more discretion in selecting the people they choose to associate with.     

The epicenter of that lesson is Sahar, Bangladesh.  Last week the death toll was confirmed to surpass 600 lives after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory.  Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest apparel exporter after China, with 80 percent of those exports coming to the United States and the European Union.  Recently, Pope Francis weighed in on the wages paid to those workers, equating them to "slave labor."

Disney understood that they were the company they kept.  Therefore, after a factory fire in Tazreen claimed 112 lives, they took measures to cut ties with partners who could not meet their standards and ultimately banned production of their products in 43 countries, including Bangladesh.

But not all companies have the sensibilities of Disney.  After the 2011 fire in Tazreen, Wal-Mart, who annually purchases more than $1 billion in apparel from Bangladesh, had an influential role in blocking efforts to improve the safety conditions in factories there, citing the financial feasibility of those upgrades.

We are the company we keep.  And that might just say about who we are than our market capitalization does. 

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