H & M Goes Socially Responsible

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IMG_1644So fascinating how corporations have adopted the rhetoric of social responsibility as a branding tool. Here, we see this strategy at work with H & M, in a central Florida mall. References to Spidey are always fun, of course. We can all enjoy the pun. But more interesting here is the notion that fashion CAN be socially responsible. H & M attempts–in a slick and aesthetically pleasing way–to set itself up as a warrior in the battle against sweatshop labor. This ad is part of the company’s attempt to reinvent both its image and (it claims) its labor policies in the wake of the horrific factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. The ad catches one’s eye. It caught mine, anyhow. Who knew H & M was socially conscious? As the retailer might hope, I went online to learn more. “H & M Conscious” is the company’s campaign to make a “fashion future” that both “looks good and does good.”

Indeed, some news reports also state the company has made an effort to get more control over production processes and improve working conditions in the factories that make its clothes  (companies like H & M use middleman factories, so efforts to control labor and safety are directed at putting pressure on those factories and creating standards they must adhere to).

However, even as the media has reported H & M’s commitment to these changes, reporters have noted what the company leaves out. And some progressive journalists are skeptical.
An optimistic view might say, this ad assemblage in the H & M storefront shows progress. Sweatshops are pretty much a household concept nowadays. The anti-sweatshop movement of the1990s gained enough success that corporations have responded to it. The cynic might say, stop! What’s really happened is corporations have co-opted this movement and neutralized it. Can social responsibility remain such when it is also an advertising tool? Can a “living wage” be both an activist goal AND a marketing tool and retain any of its core meaning?

Of course, the anti-sweatshop campaign with its focus on fair wages and safe , humane treatment is not the only example of corporate co-optation of activist language. The same process has happened with the green campaign, the red campaign, and more. The cynic might argue that using the words is just a strategy.

And the cynical historian might point out this process has characterized consumer culture throughout the 20th century. Particularly notably, Thomas Frank brilliantly points out in The Conquest of Cool how advertisers in the 1960s adopted the iconography, slogans, and themes of the countercultural movement. Once rebellion became an advertising tool, actual rebellion had to find a new voice.

Meanwhile, H & M has made “sustainability” part of its web address to promote its socially conscious theme.

I didn’t even get to gender dynamics here: perhaps the irony is obvious. H & M uses beautiful models to promote social responsibility, thus, of course, implicitly reproducing the usual standards of beauty that shape gender norms and objectify women. Moreover the beautiful, groomed, apparently happy, safe, and well-to-do women of the advertisements stand in explicit contrast to the laborers across the globe who make H & M’s clothes (and which its “conscious” campaign purports to help.)

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Old But Still Good: Gender & the Olympics

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Family, family, family, and in particular, MOM: This was the theme that dominated commercials during the Olympics this past winter.
If I had a nickel for every time moms in particular got pointed out in the stands, I’d be…well, you know.
Most noticeably, the announcers talked endlessly about ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie’ White’s moms (and occasionally about the moms of their Canadian competitors, Scott and Tessa). But they talked more about Meryl and Charlie’s moms (and yes, they said moms), by first names, like they were all old friends, with a lot of emphasis on how they’d been there from the beginning, so this was for them too. No mention of dads. Maybe they have no dads? But in fact, a google search of “Charlie White dad” turned up first, a recent People magazine story of headlined with a quote from Meryl, “Our moms are kind of our lucky charms.”
But another headline highlighted Charlie’s dad commenting on the Sochi victory.
In People, an article that pre-dated their gold medal, included this paragraph:

“Charlie is very anti-superstition – we don’t have any concrete good luck charms we rely on,” Davis shares. “But I think our moms are as close to good luck charms as we have.” The pair’s moms, Cheryl Davis and Jacqui White, have never missed a competition, Davis says, “and one tradition we have is that before we compete, we take a moment to give our moms a hug before we warm up.” Davis and White are involved with P&G’s’ “Thank You, Mom” campaign, which gave them the chance to recognize their mothers in a video about their lifelong support. “We’re so grateful to have them with us wherever we go in the world,” Davis says.”
P & G’s 2014 “Thank you Mom” commercial pictured cute, winter-sport-clad children falling over as they practiced with boards, skis, skates, and sticks; their moms there ready to lend a helping hand. “Thank you mom, for teaching us that falling only makes us stronger.”

The children morph into contemporary Olympic athletes, falling, and then, skating, gliding, sticking their way to victory. The final tagline: “P & G : Proud Sponsor of Moms.”

It’s refreshing to see from the comments that many viewers have the same question I do—“ where are the dads?” even if some of them expressed some sexist viewpoints in the process.

This theme was not new; P & G had a similar campaign in 2012 . Loving mothers rousted sleepy and tousled children from their beds in countries across the world; the reflective, lilting sound track accompanied these children braving early morning dark and cold to practice at swimming, running, and more, culminating in their transformation into Olympic athletes.

TD Ameritrade ran a similar series; see this article in Business Insider for details. Athletes contributed their own family videos for the bank’s “Behind every great moment there are lots of small ones” series.

To be sure, nothing wrong in recognizing the role families play in helping young athletes advance and achieve their dreams. But why such a gendered approach? Were these all struggling single mothers?

Unlikely. While on the one hand, this ad gave nice props to the important roles mothers play in encouraging children’s passions, it also reiterated traditional gender norms. But perhaps even more interesting is the way these ads fused concepts of sport, motherhood, and Olympic glory. The intense world of international athletic competition was softened through its connection to misty-eyed mothers.

Motherhood, not national identity, now inspires our loyalty. The competition becomes an opportunity for sentimentalizing childhood, motherhood, athleticism, and even competition itself. What we see here is another example of the way, as historian Gary Cross puts it in his great overview, An All-Consuming Century, consumerism “Won” as the dominant belief system in America during the 20th (and now into the 21st) century.

Applied to P & G, what we see is how consumerism has become totally infused into Americans’ emotional lives. In a completely unironic and unreflective way, family relationships and family love became marketing tools. These Olympic ads are the apotheosis (or nadir?!) of this process.