Communication Arts, December 2004
ARE GRAPHIC DESIGNERS RESPONSIBLE FOR MAKING BRANDS APPEAR to be what they ain't? Or does function follow form? Can a green, responsible or altruistic branding program come first, with better corporate behavior to follow?On Earth Day, April 22, 2004, the lead article on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times was entitled, "Marketing Earth Day Inc." Written by the director of an environmental agency, the article opened: "Welcome to Earth Day 2004, brought to you by petroleum powers, big-box developers, old-growth loggers, and chemically dependent coffee companies trying to paint their public image green. Through concerted marketing and public relations campaigns, these greenwashers attract eco-conscious consumers and push the notion that they don't need environmental regulation because they already are environmentally responsible." Are we designers, so committed to saving the environment by, say, specifying soy inks on recycled paper, unintentional greenwashers whose work can make environmental sinners look like saints? The word 'greenwash,' the dictionary tells us, is formed from two existing words, 'green,' committed to the environment, and 'whitewash,' a deliberate attempt by concealment to clear the reputation of a person or institution. Do we "brand" what a company is, or what it promises to become? Does our work in logo, packaging and advertising design sometimes make us guilty of helping conceal the client's past record and true intentions? And, please, I don't profess to judge the profession or know the answers to these thorny questions. Only to raise them. We all need work. Especially now, when there is hardly anyone on the planet who is not a graphic designer, how many of us wouldn't jump at the opportunity to rebrand a multinational, or even local, corporation, especially if its mission statement includes a bold environmental-protection promise? On message boards, citizens decry such "green propaganda" as oil company ads that show oceans and coastlines and use keywords like "sustainable development" and "renewable resources," when, it's alleged, they're responsible for hugely damaging oil spills. "If you see an advertiser going out of its way to project a clean image, ask yourself why," suggests one pundit, who asserts that energy industries spend millions trying to deceive people in places like West African villages, claiming that their wells and refineries can peacefully coexist with local communities without damaging their way of life or their health. Few industries are immune from this type of reproof. Not only petrochemicals, automobile and tobacco, but apparel, footwear, food, beverages, even travel. We are urged to avoid fake eco-travel operators that run tours that don't conserve the environment or improve the welfare of native peoples. Increasingly under fire are companies such as Nike, the Gap and Starbucks, accused of abusing third-world laborers. Don't let the soy latte on the menu fool you, we are advised; Starbucks exploits child labor in coffee-growing countries. Needless to say, these companies are all leading sources of design firm and ad agency billings and creative achievements. The site greenwashing.net is not pretty, but worth a look. Included among its ten worst offenders this year are Kraft Foods, cited for promoting Post cereals as having natural ingredients, while making them from genetically engineered corn; Clairol, for claiming that its Herbal Essences shampoo offers a "truly organic experience," though its formula includes several chemicals; American Electric Power, for advertising itself as environmentally friendly, though its emissions contribute to air pollution, acid rain, global warming and mercury poisoning; ExxonMobil, for "falsely advertising that the air we breathe is getting better, not worse," and with other oil giants, helping kill the Kyoto Protocol, an international initiative that called for tougher emissions standards; and General Motors, for picturing its SUVs in habitats as "if they were as natural as the birds," when, according to the site, SUVs "get very few miles to the gallon and are far more harmful to the environment than most other automobiles." The entire automotive industry is lambasted for resisting the reclassification of minivans and SUVs from less-regulated light trucks for commercial use to "what they really are: highly profitable, gas-guzzling personal transport." The Sierra club blasts GM or "failing to meet one of America's key environmental laws and engaging instead in a scam to achieve technical compliance." No company has been under fire more than BP. Created in 1998 from the former British Petroleum, Amoco, Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) and Burmah Castrol, $230 billion BP has been repeatedly singled out for spending $7 million on its new identity, designed by Landor Associates, and $25 million each quarter for implementation, mainly signage and advertising. Here's how logo is described on PB's Web site: "A vibrant sunburst of green, white and yellow. Green for environmental responsibility. Yellow representing the sun. Called the Helios mark after the sun god of ancient Greece, the logo is intended to exemplify dynamic energy in all its forms, from oil and gas to solar -- that the company delivers to its ten million daily customers around the world." Perhaps falling into the greenwashing trap, the design press lauded the new identity. "The objective of the branding program was to reposition BP from a petroleum company to one that is focused on natural energies -- wind, water and sun," wrote a guest columnist in Communication Arts magazine. "Landor did more than redesign BP's identity and visual communications. They guided BP executives to first redefine their corporate values and change the very culture of their global offices." Is that true? It is an elegantly designed mark. There is no denying that the world (or at least the urban thoroughfare) is a more attractive place with the clean, green BP 'look' on gas stations rather than ugly old Amoco. Did BP truly refine its corporate values? Or is the company still in the business of pulling oil out of the ground and selling it? And pulling the wool over the public's eyes? One financial profile indicates that oil exploration and production account for 80 percent of BP's activities, and gas and alternative energy for only three percent. Hmmm. The theme of BP's 2003 annual report is: "It starts here," and the CEO writes: "Good performance is not enough. We have to demonstrate that we can be a successful company in the long term, making a meaningful contribution to a sustainable world." That sounds nice, but how to get at the truth? It's nearly impossible. In one camp are the corporate spinmasters, who say things like, "BP stands for our aspirations: Better People, Better Products, Big Picture, Beyond Petroleum." And in the other are the muckrakers who shout: "Big Polluter!" Do we just have to wait and see if the company lives up to its promise, as some participants in the lively discussion on brandchannel.com have suggested. "I don't think you can get at the truth in any real sense," admits an environmental practice partner in an international law firm, who requests anonymity. "In my view, greenwashing has gotten so out of control, the ethics of everyone in the loop -- all those contributing to misleading advertising and promotional work -- are in question," she says. "The claims aren't exactly false, but they are deceptive because they represent a tiny fraction of what is true." If an environmental attorney can't figure out the truth, how can we? And then there are the economic necessities of our businesses, just like hers. Wouldn't all of us love to work on long-term, global design programs like BPs rebranding, which are where the big bucks are? Wouldn't you want a contract for helping maintain "the external expressions of the brand," the pristine white and green oil tanks and trucks pictured in Alina Wheeler's Designing Brand Identity. Or art directing the colorful new BPMagazine, with its upbeat articles about clean energy in Hong Kong and Argentina. Not me, you say? Well, maybe. Why not? We all do like to win awards, that's for sure. Whether they're art directors' club medals or inclusion in the C.A. Design Annual or Advertising Annual. Certain clients, however, garner another kind of award. Among the worst-in-category tributes bestowed on BP is Earth Day 2000's Greenwash Award: "Of all the oil giants, BP has most carefully crafted its image to appear concerned about the environment, out-greenwashing stiff competition, including Chevron, Exxon, Mobil and Shell." Another example. In 1998, the tobacco industry and its opponents in liability lawsuits for wrongful deaths due to cigarette smoking reached an unprecedented $368 billion settlement. Strict new rules were imposed on cigarette marketing, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was given regulatory authority over tobacco. The industry was forced to compensate states and class-action plaintiffs for the costs -- up to $15 billion a year -- of treating smoking-related diseases; to pay $60 billion in punitive damages for the industry's past deception about the dangers of smoking; and to fund nationwide, state and local antismoking education campaigns. In 2002, three years into this turn of events, Philip Morris Companies Inc. shareholders voted to change the company's name to Altria Group. Another big project for Landor. Another example of greenwashing by design? At former Philip Morris headquarters on Park Avenue, wrongful death has become a colorful mosaic of altruism. No more lions and crest, associated with the cigarette pack. Instead, a visual quilt of 25 multicolored squares: shades of red, tan, blue, green, with a handsome serif "Altria," are etched into brushed steel and become a kinetic sculpture of banners in the soaring lobby space. Not surprisingly, the company has come under fire more for the name change than the design. Numerous articles decry a "distancing" strategy that aims to transform a purveyor of what its own annual report once called "simple pleasures enjoyed by millions around the globe, cigarettes and beer," into an abstract entity that is attempting to obscure its major line of business: selling cigarettes in countries with looser, or no, regulations, like China. Altria uses the "corporate identity" tab on its Web site to post its response: "The name 'Altria' derives from the Latin word 'altus,' meaning high. To the Altria family of companies, it connotes an enterprise that aims for peak performance and constant improvement. Some have speculated that the name change to Altria is an effort to distance the family of companies from its tobacco heritage. It isn't. Altria Group takes pride in owning what we believe to be the two premier tobacco companies in the world -- each of which is retaining its Philip Morris name. We are equally proud of Kraft Foods and its outstanding performance in its industry. Going forward, our new identity will help give stakeholders greater clarity about the structure of our family of companies." "Don't be deceived!" warns a research group at the University of California, San Francisco, funded by the National Cancer Institute. "Altria means tobacco. Don't allow Philip Morris to win by corporate sleight of hand." The researchers urge nonprofit and arts organizations to turn down funding proffered by Altria, traditionally one of the country's largest sponsors of museum exhibitions, dance and theater. "Accepting gifts from Altria is the same thing as accepting gifts from Philip Morris," they caution. "It allows the company to buy legitimacy and respectability while ignoring its starring role in the deaths of millions worldwide every year -- over 400,000 in the United States alone." The group's message apparently isn't getting across as well as it could. Today, the news on Altria's Web site is: "Altria Group Awards More than $3 Million to Arts and Cultural Organizations Across the Country." What agency or design firm wouldn't want the Nike account, or just a piece of the business? We can download Nike commercials on Napster-like sites, they're so cool. The spots directed by Spike Lee for Air Jordan XVIIs featuring L.A. Clippers stars are the subject of a review on espn.com: "Shot in dramatic black and white, like jazz photographs, the court feels like a club... [the look] echoes the graphics and color schemes of Blue Note Records, the label that was the essence of cool." Nike, however, is accused of grossly misrepresenting its employment record -- in a case that's gone all the way to the Supreme Court. "In a lawsuit that could have far-reaching implications for corporate 'greenwashing' campaigns," reported Mother Jones magazine, "a San Francisco man will take on Nike Inc. over its public claims about conditions in its Asian factories -- factories that the company's critics call sweatshops." The lawsuit, Kasky v. Nike Inc., reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, and was bounced back to California Supreme Court, where environmental activist Marc Kasky is arguing that the athletic footwear and apparel company's public relations claims about working conditions in its factories in China, Vietnam and Indonesia are false advertising under California's consumer-protection laws. Nike is responding -- and has so far convinced a trial judge and an appellate court -- that it merely engaged in Constitutionally-protected free speech. It is most interesting to note that the review for the new book on Paul Rand's work, Paul Rand, Modernist Design, in the August, 2004, issue of C.A. magazine features the "tilted E" Enron logo. Could there be a more potent symbol of corporate malfeasance? Yet in 1996, when the master of corporate identity designed this mark, could he have had any more knowledge of the company's future wrongdoings than did its shareholders and the SEC? This, from a January, 1997, Enron press release announcing the new logo: "'This could be one of the most memorable days at Enron since the company was created almost twelve years ago,' Kenneth L. Lay, chairman and CEO of Enron, said. 'We are clearly defining ourselves for all our customers. This new advertising campaign and logo will begin to inform people around the world of who Enron is, and how we can help them make decisions to improve their businesses and their lives.'" Although one or more designers who've made their mark designing such artifacts as rock posters for grunge bands have labeled Rand a "corporate whore," they might secretly admire the man who, according to the jacket liner of his 1993 book, Paul Rand: Design, Form and Chaos, "almost single-handedly transformed commercial art from a practice that catered to the lowest common denominator of taste to one that could assert its place among the other fine arts." And who worked solo, out of his house, answered his own phone, and commanded handsome fees and respect from the chairmen of IBM, Westinghouse… and Enron. If Rand is a corporate whore, so might be all firms who specialize in corporate branding and annual reports -- and just about every PR and ad agency on the globe. What's left? More posters for grunge bands? A campaign for Birkenstocks? A brochure for the local ashram or birthing center? In my nearly 30-year career in the business I've found some of the least ethical clients to be nonprofit organizations and charities (but that's another story). The news is that at least two agencies are committed to staying out of the greenwashing game. From the June 20, 2003, edition of a Seattle business journal: "Ad Agency Egg Targets 'Socially Responsible' Clients." The story goes on to report: "As veterans of the advertising biz, Marty McDonald and Mindee Nodvin know you don't turn down clients. But the Seattle duo are turning that rule on its head by starting an idealistic agency that emphasizes social good as much as the bottom line. Egg, which launched in February and just moved to new digs in Pioneer Square, will work exclusively with 'socially responsible' businesses. McDonald and Nodvin will target companies specializing in natural and organic consumer goods, alternative transportation, socially responsible investment, alternative energy and eco-tourism. So far, three clients have signed on with Egg…" How are they doing? "Great!" says Marty McDonald. "Egg started with a business plan that targets five sectors, like organics and naturals, which is a $10 billion industry itself." McDonald says his $3 million, four-person-and-growing agency makes choices based on each project and what the client is selling. "We do our due diligence, using a pretty rigorous audit to identify 'triple-bottom-line' clients that deliver social and environmental results as well as positive financials. If it's a broad-scale mass market product with iffy environmental credentials, we'll say no. If it's a social responsibility project, the answer is yes." He says he turned down a company who "thought they were pretty progressive and wanted to be associated with a vendor like us," but turned out to employ environmentally unsafe manufacturing processes, and said yes to the Seattle Monorail Project, which promises to deliver alternative transportation in a city known as much for clogged freeways as its counterculture/entrepreneurial mindset. "Specifying recycled paper is a tiny part of the answer," McDonald advises. "There are plenty of environmentally and socially responsible potential clients out there. Just go to Whole Foods and look at the shelves. All kinds of sustainable businesses need logos and packaging." Remembering his days at Omnicom agencies where "you'd do anything it takes to get a client," McDonald hopes that growth won't force a lowering of ethical criteria. "It'll be harder and harder as we get bigger," he admits. "You've got to feed the beast, and you might start making compromises, especially when it comes to who the parent company is. Isn't Ben & Jerry's part of Unilever?" He says that companies who are trying to get products like organic yogurt to a wider audience are getting slammed for using so much gasoline to truck their products across the country. "But that's part of capitalism," he adds. "Our industry tends to be cynical, and we have to be optimistic." MacDonald says he likes what BP is doing. "They have great positioning and it's well executed. If only three percent of their business is alternative energy right now, they're moving in the right direction, and their advertising is raising public consciousness. Gulf is gonna follow, and Exxon and Shell." Design firms generally can't afford to mandate that all their clients fit a specific set of criteria, but many try their hardest to be environmentally correct. In Des Moines, for example, Steve Pattee of Pattee Design has worked long hours for low pay on projects like flash cards for the Iowa waste disposal agency that teach citizens how to recycle their trash. Marty McDonald predicts that in the next five years there will be at least half a dozen similarly idealistic ad agencies. His former partner, Mindee Nodvin, is spinning off her own, Bellweather Group, that focuses on public issues and social causes rather than brands. How am I doing? Enjoying the bread and circuses myself, this evening. Dishing out pale green chilled vichyssoise to friends while enjoying a concert and fireworks show sponsored by Entergy Corporation, owner/operator of ten nuclear sites in eight states, including Indian Point, two nuclear reactors on the Hudson River 35 miles north of midtown Manhattan and just a few miles from our tablecloth in the park. In the meantime, Riverkeeper, the environmental agency for which Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is chief prosecuting attorney, is urging citizens to contest the claims made by Entergy. Says Riverkeeper: "Indian Point is not safe, not secure, and not vital. A disaster from a spent fuel pool could cause up to 143,000 cancer deaths and $800 million to $566 billion in damage, and could make a radius of up to 2,700 square miles around the plant uninhabitable." That means us. Citizens are urged to write to New York Governor George Pataki and Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer to call for the immediate and permanent closure of Indian Point; to demand that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission withdraw Entergy's license to operate; and to demand that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security decertify the plant's radiological emergency plan because it fails to adequately protect public health and safety. "Entergy Nuclear Northeast is the proud sponsor of the tonight's celebration and fireworks extravaganza," gushes the announcer, a local radio personality. "Without Entergy this spectacular event wouldn't be here." Yeah, I'm thinking, with Entergy, none of us will be here. More cream of greenwashing, anyone?
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