Understanding the Public Sphere #3: Of Ice Cream and Warfare

While a lot of people in the public sphere want to describe the build up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders as an “imminent invasion,” I think we should speak plainly that Russia has already invaded Ukraine, illegally annexed territory, and funded a destabilizing war in the Donbas to destabilize the legitimate and democratically elected government in Kyiv. Look at this story below:

One year ago, the fate of Crimea was sealed: it would secede from Ukraine and become a new region of Russia. Sergei Ponomarev is one of the few Russian photographers who was working on the peninsula during February and March 2014. Ponomarev visited the major cities of Crimea and took photos of uniformed “little green men” who flooded the towns throughout the peninsula. They had no insignia, wore masks and were armed to the teeth with the latest military weapons. Ponomarev’s photo series shows us what they looked like and how they acted.

Sure, no one really knows the identity of these men who suddenly appeared in identical, yet unmarked uniforms, and stood on street corners and at government offices holding guns no one could trace while monitoring a “vote” whose outcome was obviously and explicitly pre-determined to wrench Crimea out of Ukraine and give it to Russia, but… let’s just speak plainly. Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, it already seized territory and killed thousands of Ukrainians, and the world mostly did nothing in response.

That’s bad! But there is precedent for their assuming the world, or even Europe, won’t do anything again (I’m not referring to a military strike — our options have always been extremely limited there, as I explained seven years ago). That is a clear factor into why Russia feels emboldened now, and why we still aren’t entirely sure what to do.

Brands to the Rescue?

The sense of helplessness many Americans feel, watching Russia openly prepare to invade and occupy another country, is familiar to me, personally. In 2013, I had just started a job at a non-profit whose national office in Kyiv had to shut down during the Euromaidan protest. We had to face an onslaught of trolls on our social media accounts (including my personal ones) that escalated even to efforts at phishing and other security threats I can’t discuss. We could do nothing beyond offering emotional support to our peers, colleagues, and friends who were marching in the streets, braving police battles, and later resisting the illegal annexation of Crimea.

That sense of powerlessness is deeply familiar to many people around the world, fare moreso than for me, as they watch the U.S. military do the same ominous build up to an unnecessary conflict. I still remember the harrowing stories of “Salam Pax,” an eponymous Iraqi who live-blogged the run up to the invasion in 2003. I felt it again as the withdrawal from Afghanistan turned into a disaster last summer, utter powerlessness in the face of an onrushing evil, and the time and energy I spent contacting everyone I knew to try to get people out of Kabul is still a very dark memory for me.

The sense of foreboding, knowing you are powerless to do anything to stop it, is hard to handle even for people with experience in facing down terrifying conflict. It seems to be even more so for some brands.

Twitter intentionally broke the embedding feature. Sorry.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Ben & Jerry’s is taking a seemingly-progressive stance on the topic of war with Russia. After all, it is how their brand functions, though they normally stick to issues a bit closer to home where their customers can have an actual impact through local elections and voting.

So what makes this different? There are a few things.

  1. While Ben & Jerry’s is unabashedly progressive, they don’t often talk about war and peace in very specific terms beyond generic calls for peace and goodwill. So to see such a specific policy claim, with such a specific ask for the White House, is unexpected.
  2. While you can make a second-order linkage between an ice cream company and the material conditions people face in the communities where they sell said ice cream (click on that link above for what I mean), it’s unclear why an ice cream company should have a stance on a specific number of troop deployments and the vague demands for peace.
  3. The specifics of that statement are weirdly wrong: Russia is the very obvious aggressor here and has no legal or moral justification for the build up of 175,000 troops along Ukraine’s border, the Biden administration has been adamant that they only see a negotiated way out of the conflict, and sending 1000 troops to Poland and Estonia are only “fanning the flames of war” if you don’t know what fans, flames, or wars are.

So, even beyond the specific decision to tweet at all, there were some deeper problems with what they posted and, probably why. There’s also the tricky issue of their tweet being mobilized by a hostile Russian state-run propaganda media agency.

Twitter intentionally broke the embedding feature. Sorry.

Most people, rightly, don’t care what RT has to say, since there has been a relatively effective pushback on them as any sort of alternative source of news. But the reaction to Ben & Jerry’s was almost universally negative among reactions to it on Twitter, and garnered widespread mockery and scorn in the press. I think this is a lesson to learn.

Brands Don’t Have to Care About Everything

It is very trendy in the strategic comms space to advocate for companies having a point of view on everything — I’ve lost track of how many companies post quippy video clips or promoted posts promoting various social causes that have nothing to do with their products or operations.

This is obviously intentional, but the reason such messages rub so many people the wrong way is because we are used to thinking of corporate social responsibility communications as being instrumental to the company making it. When corporate management consultants pay for a WSJ domain to host their ode to purpose-driven organizations (for example), it seems inauthentic. Purpose-driven organizations are corporations whose primary reason for being, so the line goes, is not the raw pursuit of profit, but rather is fulfilling some social purpose in the world. Unilever may say they care about improving sanitation and hygiene in developing countries, but it’s also pretty clear they just want to sell a bunch more soap (when they are firing people by the thousand to save money for, you guessed it, their profit margin).

Then again, these same management consulting companies are often implicated in repeated ethical scandals across the globe because, rather than being driven by any social purpose, they really do exist for the sole purpose of making money. When put in opposition to each other, an ethical behavior will never win out over a profitable behavior unless the company is forced to by law or regulation. When the interests of the company’s margin and some social goal align, like Unilever’s goal to improve global sanitation, then there can be a plausible authenticity to the company’s “purpose” values.

Most of the time, this does not happen because of some specific malice by corporate executives — I don’t think anyone at Amazon is proud to abuse employees, per se — but rather is because the structure of our economy, especially in its 21st century hyperfinancialized structure, simply provides no real means to prioritize social values over monetary values. (Though there are always examples of knowing malice by corporate executives, and they should never have such behavior excused or rewarded.) Corporations are very intentionally designed as semi-autonomous organizations, almost like an analog artificial intelligence, with lots of decision-making authority pushed down the ranks through SOPs and rulebooks, and there is only so much a CEO can do to alter that on a whim. The bad news is, this makes it hard for a company to have a positive social purpose. The good news is, there is no inherent reason that has to be true — we could, if we updated our laws and regulations, and punished ethical and legal misconduct more stringently, change that.

It may sound like I am a cynic about CSR, but I wouldn’t say that holds true for most CSR. I am, however, arguing for a very specific view of CSR, which is usually summarized as instrumentalism. When you think of CSR as the response to globalization — an attempt to mitigate at least the aesthetics of harm by a company aware of said harm — it makes sense that the most common type of CSR you see would be aligned with the products or audiences the company has. (I am summarizing a pretty rich research literature about this, but I need to focus.) When they stray beyond this alignment, the risk to the company increases. You saw that with Ben & Jerry’s: even when people broadly agreed with their stance, they still criticized the company for taking it.

A Less Crowded Public, Perhaps

Our society (which is a form of chauvinism, since I mean in the US and most of western Europe), everyone seems compelled to care about everything else. And when that happens — when people try to care about everything, even if their caring does nothing to change it in any concrete way — it is easy to feel cynical about the idea of caring. On social media, this results in black boxes for a few days in the summer of 2020 on accounts that otherwise show no evidence of racial diversity. In the universe of corporate communications, this takes the form of ice cream companies tweeting about war with Russia, or how a massive consulting firm can declare its commitment to racial and social justice even as it defrauds governmentagencies in Africa.

The public sphere is a crowded place, much more crowded than it was a few decades ago. Internet-mediated communication has been a boon for marginalized communities who can gather and talk more freely, but it has also enabled a cacophony of voices, views, and promotions that makes it hard to sift through and understand. In that environment, it is not very surprising that a clumsy effort at promoting a brand viewpoint in a different context would fall flat.

So what is a brand to do? I think the unexpected success of Steak’Ums on Twitter has led many companies into a false sense of the utility of commenting on everything in real time as it happens. While a Twitter account might be the first time a customer comes across your presence online, it’s rarely going to become a relationship on that platform. Newsletters, customer loyalty programs, more targeted forms of advertising, and the direct customer experience will be what cultivates a commercial relationship, not a “lively” Twitter feed.

I am, again, advocating, for a very specific view of effective marketing, since I tend to discount social messages in a way many younger people do not. While, for most companies the risk to bandwagoning some social justice movement is practically zero, I also see endless examples every time I look at the trade presses of companies going too far in taking sides on divisive social and political issues and having to expend more time and money and effort on unnecessary reputation management. It can often look like noise with few upsides and lots of downsides.

Especially with a topic like war with Russia, where there are no clear ways out, every chance of enormous bloodshed, and almost no way to stop it, the risk for commenting seems far too high. Obviously the good folks at Ben & Jerry’s don’t agree, and while they certainly don’t have to, the might reputation wallop they’ve taken this week sure looks like they’d benefit from being just a bit less active on their social accounts.

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