Image is Everything

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Like anyone who enjoys Rand’s novels, I get a thrill when corporations have the guts to defend themselves in the court of public opinion. Galt knows, it’s not that often. But there are currently a few corporate”image” ad campaigns that promote not just a particular product or company, but capitalism itself.

My favorites are the MasterCard ads that show how seemingly trivial purchases can add up to create priceless spiritual moments. You know the ones. “Kneepads: $35. Dark Blue Dress: $80. Dry Cleaning: $0. Bringing a president to his knees: Priceless.” Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign did a satire of these ads that prompted MasterCard to file an injunction. MasterCard had to, because if you don’t zealously defend your trademark, case law says you could end up losing your right to the trademark entirety.

Another of my favorites is the NASDAQ ad campaign that profiles some of the innovative high-tech companies sold on that exchange. Unfortunately, they don’t air it much now that NASDAQ has became a swearword. There are also some terrific ads from the American Plastics ‘Council that show how a product as boring and vilified as plastic improves and even saves our lives. And don’t forget the Shilo Inn radio ads that extol the “American free enterprise system” as the fountainhead of excellence.

But these ads are exceptions. Most corporate image ads are suicidal. They have a subtext that basically says: “Yes, we know we are evil, but now we’re doing some good things, too.” The absolute worst has to be the British Petroleum campaign. They’ve got an ad that says, “Imagine a company becoming a force for good … ”

I’d love to see British Petroleum unveil an ad that says, “Listen up, all you left-wingnuts who think that we oil companies conspire to thwart the development of solar power. It just so happens that the best solar panels in the world are made and marketed by British Petroleum.”

The cigarette companies are getting their butts kicked in the ongoing ad war with anti-tobacco activists. And no wonder. Tobacco ads are regulated every which way but loose. I’d love to see a tobacco council ad with Tom Hanks walking along a Normandy beach saying, “Cigarettes helped win World War II. They calmed soldiers’ nerves and kept them alert. They offered a moment of pleasure in a world of horror. And one of the reasons these men fought fascism was for the freedom to enjoy simple pleasures. Like a Philly cheesesteak, a beer, or a cigarette. Don’t let today’s fascists take that freedom away.” But, of course, the sellers of cigarettes can’t mention their own product on TV or radio.

And not only are anti-tobacco ads-free to say whatever, wherever, and however they want (they’re even allowed to show someone smoking, albeit through a hole in her throat), they are often funded by the government. In Idaho, for example, the State Department of Health has launched an anti-tobacco campaign involving a series of billboards showing two rugged cowboys riding slowly into the sunset with the caption, “Bob, I miss my lung.” Not only are the cowboys dressed, staged, and photographed exactly the same as in a real Marlboro ad, the type font is exactly the same. I’m no intellectual property lawyer, but this looks a little’like a copyright violation to me. Or maybe confiscation of a trademark. But I digress.

When image ads aren’t undermining capitalism, they are merely wasting their owners’, and ultimately consumers’, money. The point is that many of these image ads are pointless. They’re defensive without defending anything. Take for example the poignant Phillip Morris ads telling how they helped flood victims and refugees. They’re swell ads, but do they make Phillip Morris’ enemies suddenly love tobacco companies? And these activists have been crowing that Phillip Morris spent more last year on that ad campaign that it did on the actual charity. Oops.

Speaking of charity, ads aren’t the only way corporations waste money trying to cultivate a public image. Corporate charitable giving may offer tax advantages, but from a purely PR point of view, who do they think they’re impressing (or appeasing)? I have yet to hear someone say, “Yeah, that Bill Gates is a greedy bastard and Microsoft is the Evil Empire, but you know, they do donate a lot to charity, so let’s buy more of their products and tell the government to get off their backs.” It’s one thing for Microsoft employees to donate their own resources to charity, but as a stockholder I don’t want the company spending time and money on anything other than making more money. And as a customer, I don’t want to bear the costs of that charitable giving.

And don’t get me started on the image-conscious pressure to be seen”giving back to the community.” Giving what back? The revenues they already paid to employees, suppliers, and investors? As one of Rand’s heroes might say, “After all I’ve done for you, you want me to ‘give back to the community’?! Okay. I’ll give you back the entire corporation, just as I found it: an empty field overgrown with weeds.”

Actually, come to think of it, many environmentalists might go for an ad like that.

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