Catch that subhead? That ain’t Mother Jones there, that’s the Wall Street Journal, saying that the Greenpeace Dove ad parody campaign flipped Unliver into a policy of only buying palm oil from suppliers who can demonstrate they don’t cut down forests — Unilever’s mumbled demurings notwithstanding.
There were other elements of this campaign that don’t get that banner head treatment — months of research our Forest team put into our “Burning up Borneo” report on just how badly the world’s thirst for Palm Oil is wrecking Indonesia’s rainforests and how big a role Unilever products like Dove play in that market, quiet meetings with Unilever to ask them politely to do something about the problem, banners and monkeyshines at Unilever headquarters around the world when they didn’t — all of them essential to Unilever taking action, even if not as sexy as a piece positioning YouTube as an activist tool.
But whoever edited that headline decided that the parody ads were the big guns, and that’s a reflection of the power of brand attacks. I’ve been harping on this for ages, but harps wouldn’t be harps if they didn’t bear repeating: corporate targets are far easier to move than governments. Our first taste of this at Greenpeace was in the early 90s, when we were opposing Shell and the UK government over the dumping of the Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea. The UK government was ready to fight it out with us. Her Majesty’s government does not bow to public pressure groups and all that. But Shell, having watched its reputation and brand value plummet as Europeans expressed outrage over treating the North Sea as their private garbage bin, did the right thing and backed down — leaving a redfaced UK government sputtering.
When we went after Coca Cola in 2000 over their use of climate-killing chemicals at the Sydney Olympics, we had an entire land-based campaign with all the traditional bells and whistles ready to launch. But we never got to deploy. We had pre-launched a brand-attack website with Adbusters, and were a bit surprised when the CEO of Coke rang us up within two weeks of going live to say they were committing to a phase out — a promise they made good on. Damn. Wasted all that work on those banners.
Our campaign against Electronic waste is moving the entire PC industry toward cleaner production and better recycling methods — not by changing international policies or national regulations — but by creating a race for Green kudos with our Ranking Guide, which pits brand against brand.
The jury is still out on whether Unilever is serious, or just trying to shoo us away with good noise. If they do what McDonalds did when we challenged their Soy purchasing policies — that is, actually engage with the industry to try and solve the problem of soy displacing Amazon rainforest, rather than simply switching to another supplier and ducking criticism — then Unilever probably gets out of the crosshairs. If they just punt out a roar of greenwash, that ain’t good enough.
But on balance, this all adds up to one thing. Governments are becoming obsolete as targets. Multinationals, not governments, determine where the world is heading. They are more flexible, more responsive to public pressure. And for activists, that means if we want to change the world, we need to change our targets. We don’t always have a choice, but when either a government or a high-profile, retail-facing corporation can both move an issue, choosing the corporate target is simply a no-brainer.