From Consumer to Citizen: How Brands and Ad Agencies Can Help to Change the World

Posted on June 29, 2014

Tell me I’m a consumer and I’ll consume. Tell me I’m a citizen and I can help make the world a better place.

In April 2014 I attended an event called ‘21st Century People Power’ put on by The New Citizenship Project. I had been very impressed by an earlier talk given by the group’s founder, Jon Alexander, that resonated with everything I believe about how brands can and should influence human behaviour in a positive way.

At the heart of The New Citizenship Project is the premise that “a new, more genuinely participatory society is ready to emerge – a society in which the primary role of the individual is the Citizen, not just the Consumer”.

This is not the citizenship of antiquity – as noble as it was –  but a 21st century version empowered by digital technology, social media and ever greater access to information. It allows active engagement in society across a diverse range of roles. Citizens are no longer just voters. They are shareholders, workers, artists, activists, parents – whatever – with the potential to shape our society from the bottom up for the greater good. For too long we have sat back and allowed it to be built from the top down, whilst we fulfil our role as the consumers we have been told to be.  The result? A society that benefits so few at the expense of too many.

Together with YouGov, The New Citizenship Project surveyed almost 3600 British adults split into three groups – the first primed as ‘consumers’, the second as ‘citizens’ and the third as a control group. All three were asked about their propensity to participate actively in society and get involved in their local communities. The results showed that those who saw themselves as citizens were significantly more likely to act more responsibly and in the interests of the greater good than their consumer counterparts.

A recent report from the Money Advisory Service confirms the British consumer willingness to drown in debt. One of the (many) reasons is that we have been conditioned by brands into believing that we ’need’ what they are selling and that debt is a price worth paying. (If you are in any doubt, watch Jacques Peretti’s excellent 3 part series ‘The Men Who Made Us Spend’ on BBC iPlayer). Consumerism has been hoisted upon us as the default human position. We have been told that it is a good thing, that it turns the wheels of industry and is good for employment and  ‘progress’. But what kind of progress and at what expense? It’s a simple case of wants overshadowing needs, keeping up with the neighbours and nursing our delicate egos at a time when indiscriminate growth is harming our planet. What more evidence do you need than the 2014 WWF State of the Planet report telling us that the world’s populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles fell overall by 52 per cent between 1970 and 2010?

Will Rogers (1879 – 1935), the American social commentator, said that advertising is ‘the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need’. And he was right. But back then, Rogers’ point was philosophical. It could be debated harmlessly because it applied to a world with room for growth and a population of 2 billion. Today, there are 7 billion people on a planet racked by inequality and an increasing scarcity of natural resources.

What can we do? Well, first and foremost, we need to be practical. Free market capitalism is too ingrained in the world’s corporate, political and social DNA to be abandoned. Raging against it is counter-productive and easy to dismiss as unrealistic or hopelessly idealistic. We also need to remember that capitalism is responsible for many of the innovations that have made our lives healthier and longer. Capitalism, managed well, can be a very good thing. Nor can we expect the world’s NGOs, sustainability champions and pressure groups to facilitate the changes we need on our behalf. The answer lies with us, the consumers, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the appetite is there.

The potential ramifications for brands are enormous.  They are amongst the most influential shapers of public opinion and human behaviour change ever known. With the exception of catastrophic events such as war, famine, disease and natural disasters, they can effect human behaviour more than almost anything else. Every day, brands convince millions of people to buy their products and services. If they can be shown that it is still possible to do this whilst also encouraging 21st century citizenship, they could genuinely change the world. Of course it’s not for everyone – there are plenty of brands that don’t care for anything but profit – but we only need a few enlightened ones to start the wheel turning. If people demand it, brands will deliver it. It’s a key element of free market capitalism.

Advertising agencies are better placed than anyone else to make this happen and the timing has never been better. Nielsen’s 2014 Global Survey on Corporate Social Responsibility reveals ‘that 55% of global online consumers (there’s that word again) across 60 countries are willing to pay more for products and services from brands that are committed to positive social and environmental impact’. Just as brands have been complicit in the creation of aggressive consumerism, they are equally capable of nurturing a more conscious form of capitalism in tune with the needs of the planet and an increasingly enlightened public. It won’t be easy and it will take time, but it is possible. Citizenship presents one of the most promising ways to make it a reality.

Thomas Kolster, a pioneer of advertising as a force for good, challenges brands to demand more from their ad agencies with campaigns that create change as well as sell products; cutting edge creative work that satisfies the increasing expectation that brands have a responsibility to help tackle many of the world’s greatest challenges, including inequality, poverty and climate change. Kolster highlights some of the great work that is already being done, like Honey Maid’s ‘This is Wholesome’ campaign featuring mixed raced and gay and lesbian families and Intermarche’s ‘Inglorious’ work aimed at overcoming our reluctance to eat mis-shapen fruit and veg that results in millions of tons of perfectly good food being discarded every year. Kolster lists many more in his book ‘Goodvertising’ and on his website, both of which should be essential reading for anyone who champions advertising as a force for good.

A lot of my work focuses on helping brands to embrace ethics, sustainability and meaningfulness through their communications strategies. Together with organisations such as The New Citizenship Project, people like Thomas Kolster and an increasing number of enlightened ad agencies, I believe that we can encourage a revival of citizenship, that will be good for business, people and the planet and create a more conscientious market in which brands are compelled to give to the planet as much as they take away from it.

And then we can really start making a difference.

(The image for this post is by NickiMM and used by kind permission via a Creative Commons licence.)

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