Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Social Responsibility and the Commercialization of Society

While the pursuit of growth and profits continues to rule daily life within the corporate world, a growing number of businesses are also measuring their success against one of the most fundamental ethical principles of business – that of “social responsibility.” Businesses across sectors are taking stock of their social responsibility and placing ethical limits on their actions to ensure that the legitimate pursuit of financial success does not undermine the common good.

Voluntarily, or through regulatory action, business has been held to the ethic of the common good many times in recent history.

During the 1970s and 1980s, manufacturing processes that were detrimental to public health and environmental well-being fell under regulatory control, despite the fact that, in many cases, socially responsible manufacturing processes impacted corporate profits.

During the 1990s, the tobacco industry was dismayed to learn that pursuing its financial success at the expense of public health would not be tolerated. This led to a multitude of successful public and private lawsuits against the tobacco companies that cost them hundreds of millions of dollars.

During 2000, corporate profitability was at an all-time high and CEO salaries had soared to unconscionable levels. Public outcry over corporate and individual greed in the face of under-funded and unsolved social problems reminded many corporations of their role as corporate citizens and their ethical responsibility to allocate a portion of corporate wealth to the betterment of the surrounding society and culture.

During 2003, with 300,000 preventable deaths occurring each year from chronic conditions that result from unhealthy eating habits, snack food makers and fast food restaurants have found themselves under fire to develop healthier products or face health-related lawsuits and regulatory intervention.

The latest issue of corporate social responsibility is the commercialization of society and culture. As modern businesses work harder to deliver unending growth and earnings in their increasingly saturated markets, many people are beginning to wonder if the commercialization of every aspect of society isn’t mortgaging the soul of our culture.

Whether it is the “no-brand” movement or the national “do not call” list, society is asking if businesses are going too far to sell their products and services as they violate every aspect of our culture and society with commercial messages. Does this commercialization of society evidence another evasion of social responsibility on the part of individual corporations and the business community at large?

Today, marketing executives are faced with a difficult, if not impossible job – to drive unending consumption. As the traditional approaches to marketing and advertising become less effective, marketers are devising new strategies to invade hitherto public, social, and cultural realms that were not previously considered to be part of the “marketplace.” Professionals attending major marketing and advertising conferences now hear about “entertainment-based” strategies that promise to obtain product placement within all forms of media programming, along with “municipal branding” that promises to put a corporate brand on municipal structures everywhere, and “academic branding” that promises to fund under-funded educational programs at universities in return for brand signatures on buildings and within printed university materials.

Does this increasing omnipresence of brands and commercial messages undermine our society and culture? Many think it does. Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, believes that what is coming to be known as the “academic-industrial complex” is eroding the mission of education and turning liberal arts education into both business education and another channel of trade.

Universities are filling funding gaps both by allowing the commercialization of their facilities and by turning their research facilities away from the academic pursuit of knowledge and toward solving corporate problems. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that universities in the U.S. received over $1 billion in patent licensing receipts during 2000. Such funding increasingly supports business-related course work, turning the university toward business education and providing course work primarily as means to secure a career. This undermines both the vision of a liberal education as having value for its own sake and the belief in education as the cultivator of a well-rounded person.

Should television and film programming become replete with product placements and subliminal commercial messages? Is it legitimate to brand city hall to offset declining tax revenues? Should we subtly sell to college students while they do their homework? Is something irreplaceable lost when society and culture succumb to earnings-based, bottom-line thinking in every area, and the relentless drive of branding and marketing activities overtakes every aspect of society simply to increasse consumption and drive new sales?

As many markets “top-out” and reach saturation state, it is questionable whether it is in society’s best interest to drive unnecessary or undesirable consumption. Over-consumption of food and beverage products is driving the present obesity epidemic, costing our society over $100 billion per year in health-related expenses. Just as alcoholic beverages have had to encourage “responsible consumption” to avoid lawsuits and evidence social responsibility, unhealthy food and beverage products now need to encourage moderate consumption and a healthier lifestyle to become socially responsible. And, as telemarketers have been reined in with the “do not call” registry, we may next need to consider regulating unethical marketers who undermine culture and society with incessant branding and marketing that is designed to instill non-existent desires, invent new and unnecessary usage occasions, and drive mass over-consumption?

Is the mindset of modern business that calls for unending growth and consumption mortgaging the soul of our culture? Promoting the consumption of products and services beyond society’s natural need may be a passing paradigm for socially responsible businesses. Couldn’t marketers, out of respect for the individual, society, and culture limit their commercial penetrations to the traditionally accepted channels of communication and protect our cultural capital?

Is this the topping-out of capitalism, or is this just the ethics of capitalism? Sales, profits, and growth are important, but social responsibility is more important.

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