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The World Cup, psychology, politics and that brand purpose debate
We explore how responses to the World Cup are leading to important questions about the way brands and customers engage with political debate
There is a great deal of concern about ‘washing’ across a wide variety of contexts: purpose, woke, green, rainbow and so on. Indeed, regulators are starting to take a closer look, with the FCA planning to clamp down on ‘green washing’ specifically. They point out that there has been growth in the number of financial investment products marketed as ‘green’ and are concerned that exaggerated, misleading or unsubstantiated claims about green credentials damage confidence. The FCA is planning to take steps to ensure that consumers and firms can trust that products have the sustainability characteristics they claim to have.
The aims of course are laudable – but perhaps it is worth stepping back and using behavioural science as a lens to explore some of the challenges around this topic. Through this we can see that the issues are not quite as straightforward as they might first appear. Indeed, posing the discussion as ‘washing’ frames it as a fairly narrow binary debate between accurate and inaccurate: an alternative perspective is one of people willing to engage in the complexities of the nuanced challenges of an increasingly uncertain world.
The origins of washing
If we consider something has been ‘washed’ then it suggests that we have in some way been deceived. The origins of the -washing suffix date back to the 16th-century verb whitewash, which over time took on a metaphorical sense, associated with stopping people discovering the true facts about something.
The term greenwashing was first used by New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay about the hotel industry's practice of placing notices in bedrooms promoting reuse of towels to "save the environment". He argued that often little or no other effort toward reducing energy waste was made by hotels, whilst towel reuse saved them laundry costs. His concluded that real objective was not environmental concern but increased profit, hence the term greenwashing.
In some ways we could see this as a ‘say-do’ gap for businesses and other institutions – where what is said appears to be at odds with what is actually done. But if we look a little closer at the issues then we can see some challenges with this narrow distinction.
Is there a standard to judge?
If ‘washing’ is taking place then this assumes that what we are seeing is a form of fake, it is not the real thing. Which then begs the question of what is the authentic standard of what is being washed, that we are being prevented from seeing. In some instances this is easily understood – for example when there is a clear case of wrong doing, as was the case in the cover up of vehicle emissions by Volkswagen with the group's chief executive at the time, Martin Winterkorn, saying his company had "broken the trust of our customers and the public”.
But in other cases, to what extent can we be confident that we know what the standard is that we are holding the organisation to account and how can we be sure that the organisation has fallen short? Looking specifically at environmental sustainability, there are standards we can use to compare current practices, such as B-Corp, but of course, these are not without some degree of controversy with, for example, carbon off-setting being particularly contested ground.
One example of how it can be hard to know where the lines are drawn is the case of a British supermarket retailer that was accused of using fictional farm names, such as ‘Woodside Farms’ and ‘Boswell Farms’ on their products. This, it was claimed by some, was an attempt to mislead shoppers into believing that produce was sourced from small-scale producers. When questioned, the retailer pointed to their interim results, pointing out that the brands continued to be popular with consumers despite this being widely reported. Indeed, the retailer went on to suggest that all parties understand the concept is fake, meaning that the marketing activity was justified.
So perhaps it is often not as straightforward as first appears: the “-washing’ prefix sets things up to suggest a binary opposition between ‘truth’ and ‘obfuscation’. As Patricia Kingori points out in a special edition journal on fakes in Africa, the claims made by religious leaders, scientists and traditional media outlets are not always taken at face value but are evaluated alongside other narratives for their authenticity. This suggests that reality is not as straightforward given that the underlying truth is itself based on contested claims. And not only that, but the public recognises the nuanced nature of these lines.
A political debate?
Whilst ‘-washing’ can at times be a cover for clear malpractice, we could also see it as the means by which a ‘thinking society’ is having a political debate. To help us understand this we can look at the very topical example of the difficulties involved in unpicking this is the debate concerning the current World Cup.
Placing itself right at the centre of the debate is beer manufacturer BrewDog that has declared itself the “proud anti-sponsor” of the football world cup, with a series of billboards protesting Qatar’s human rights record. The bill posters feature copy reading: ‘Proud anti-sponsor of the World F*Cup,’ ‘The Beautiful Shame,’ ‘Eat, Sleep, Bribe, Football’ and ‘First Russia, then Qatar. Can’t wait for North Korea.’
There has been substantial debate concerning this campaign with some suggesting it represents ‘inauthentic brand activism’ and points to the way the firm itself has faced accusations of a toxic workplace culture, as outlined in a BBC documentary. And while BrewDog plans to donate all profits made from its Lost Lager during the tournament to human rights charities, there have been challenges concerning BrewDog’s distribution deal in Qatar and their bars will be showing games in the UK.
So just how do we come a conclusion here concerning ‘purpose washing?’ On the one hand this could be seen a legitimate exercise in raising awareness of some critical issues and making a decent contribution to charities. On the other hand it could be seen as a form of ‘washing’ in which societal concerns are used to ‘wash’ another agenda of promotion of the brand and enhanced sales.
A very different but perhaps more explicitly political example of ‘washing’ claims comes from Austria, whose government is to start a legal challenge to the European Union's decision to classify gas and nuclear energy as green and sustainable transitional energy sources. The country's climate protection minister, Leonore Gewessler said "Especially with the war waging in Ukraine, we can't have a greenwashing programme for investment in nuclear power and fossil gas,"
Whilst these cases appear very different, they are both surely drawing attention to the contested grounds of the debate, ones where there are few clear dividing lines here upon which it is possible to readily find agreement.
This illustrates the point that it can be very difficult to be very confident of what it is that is being washed, or indeed whether washing has taken place. These are political debates for which a range of views can legitimately be expressed. And, as journalist Anand Giridharadas recently put it:
“Politics is the inherently messy business of negotiating and reconciling incompatible interests and coming up with a decent plan, designed to be liked, but difficult to love.”
The psychology of being drawn to these debates
What is being ‘washed’ or not, what is fake and what is real, what is misinformation and what is the truth, are all questions that sit closely together and where a great deal of research activity is taking place. What is starting to emerge is the way in which people engage with ‘fake news’ is more nuanced than might seem at first sight. Examining this can help us to unpack some of the psychology of the debate around the very similar debate concerning ‘washing.’
A recent paper examines the social motives that drive people to share conspiracy theories, and devotes particular attention to the motive to generate social engagement, such as “likes” and reactions to social media posts. Specifically, the authors focused on how the motive to generate social feedback influences content sharing decisions. The research study found that people willingly trade off accuracy for social engagement and share material that they know to be of debateable veracity.
So we can see that people are drawn to being engaged on these matters – but perhaps we are not only generating ‘social engagement’ but we could also consider this to be ‘political engagement’. Why is this? Perhaps because the technocratic solutions here are not going to find a solution. Kingori puts it well when she suggests:
“The labels of authentic and original, as opposed to reproduction, fake and copy, refer to an idealised notion of a market that does not reflect how these markets function in everyday life.”
It seems that perhaps we can consider that much of this debate is about politically contested ground about which we will likely be drawn into, often in an animated and argumentative manner.
No wonder much of the discussion is also about motives of the organisation involved: such as whether are they intentionally misleading or doing so inadvertently? And could they be doing more but choosing to do less? Is the stated positioning one which places great virtue on certain sorts of behaviour whilst their actual behaviour suggests something less than this (even if their performance is better than others but who have lower stated standards?) All these are hard to identify and discern but they are all reasons why people look at the breadth of actions by organisations to understand their intentions.
The need for debate
“…the likeliest futures still lie beyond thresholds long thought disastrous, marking a failure of global efforts to limit warming to “safe” levels. Through decades of only minimal action, we have squandered that opportunity. Perhaps even more concerning, the more we are learning about even relatively moderate levels of warming, the harsher and harder to navigate they seem.”
Wallace-Wells suggests the world we are entering is one of uncertainty and turmoil which calls into question many things about the world that have been taken for granted for generations. With this in mind, we surely need to get used to operating in a way that does not assume binary distinctions between ‘truth’ and ‘washing’ or between accuracy and fake.
Negotiating this world inevitably comes with risk, controversy and debate. Indeed, the debate itself is no bad thing. In another recent study (yet to be published), researchers JonRobert Tartaglione and Lee de-Wit showed participants data attributed to a "new immigration policy": they used different types of bar charts that illustrated the degree of polarisation between political parties. Most interestingly, they found that when no graph was shown, people were most likely to believe that the issues were most polarised in the general population, and even when the charts used a truncated vertical axis (which accentuated the degree of difference between those advocating and those opposing the policy) people were much less likely to consider the population to be polarised.
The point here is that open debate, while messy, allows people to engage in a way that is less polarising. The alternative is that people stop engaging in the issue and instead adopt identity based positions, as set out in Dan Kahan’s identity-protective cognition framework. When we adopt these positions, the focus moves from the subject matter to the way we see ourselves in relation to these topics. We see then see ourselves in terms of our political or social identities and adopt arguing positions congruent with these rather than getting stuck into the messy world of political debate trying to negotiate and reconcile incompatible interests (see Rafia Zakaria’s book ‘Against White Feminism’ for a searing critique of the way in which identity can displace the focus away from the subject matter itself.)
Perhaps we have got used to more technocratic forms of governance of our political, cultural and commercial lives so it may be that we tend to see these debates as problematic. But debate is inevitable as the examples cited here illustrate the way that ‘washing’ debates often concern the negotiation of contested grounds. Simply calling something ‘washing’ does not necessarily mean it is problematic fakery. As Anne Merlan sets out in her book, Republic of Lies, these terms (e.g. conspiracy theories, fake news and by implication ‘washing’) can be appropriated and weaponised to serve particular agendas. These are often arguments where rhetoric is set against rational debate and can rapidly become very sophisticated.
Many organisations are engaged in a range of purposeful activities that seek to obtain positive outcomes across a range of social, cultural and environmental areas. To what extent are these ‘washing’ activities designed for self-serving purposes versus acts that are intended to find new ways of doing business and operating in a changing world will always be something that is challenged and debated.
But it seems that there is a case, as BrewDog are doing, for bringing the wider population into this debate and recognising that the difficult conversations are perhaps a critical part of this activity. As we seek to navigate the uncertainty and turmoil of the changing world then surely it is better to have a robust and difficult conversation about these topics, than for people to be retreating into identity-based positions which likely leads to polarisation and little actual progress.
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