SOCIAL MARKETING MISSES THE MARK

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Spare me from companies that wear their marketing programs on their sleeves. What they're trying to show, of course, is that they possess more social consciousness than their competitors, but the net effect to me is that they don't have anything to say about what really matters and that's their products and how they'll help consumers.

Benetton, as an example, goes to extremes to avoid talking about (or showing) its overpriced clothing. If you're not outraged about their ad showing a priest kissing a nun, all you have to do is wait for the next even more outrageous rendition.

The last issue of Benetton's quarterly magazine, Colors, successfully makes the transition from tasteless to disgusting. One spread (which the company has also plastered on billboards) shows a doctored photograph of Ronald Reagan with AIDS-related lesions marking his face. An accompanying "obituary" states he died "from AIDS complications in February of last year."

Joseph Perkins, a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune, contends it's "absurd" to blame President Reagan for the spread of AIDS. "How simple. How ridiculous," he says. "The Italian clothier ought to stick to making halter tops and T-shirts and leave politics to those who know what they're talking about."

But if they did they'd be just another garment maker with nothing to distinguish themselves from dozens of others. Their challenge is to continually find a subject and photograph more hideous and vile than the previous one. So far they've done an admirable job.

Body Shop, a chain of soaps and beauty treatments, also has a well-developed social conscience, which it also isn't shy talking about. It makes a big deal out of importing nut oil for its soaps from Indian workers in Brazil, parchment from Nepal and cactus scrubnets from Mexican women. The chain set up a soapworks factory in a depressed area of Scotland, producing 24 million bars a year.

But the Body Shop people believe their brand of self-righteousness is better than Benetton's because, they contend, Benetton's is social marketing with no follow-up and their program is internalized. Body Shop officials say they provide venues for education and conscious-raising; they turn over their stores to an issue such as harassment in the workplace, child poverty or the environment. The common denominator of these kinds of companies is that they maintain a holier than thou attitude. But if they should stumble and show any evidence of not living up to their lofty preachings, their customers will hold them strictly accountable, more so than if they operated a more mundane-if less contentious-institution.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. There are a lot of competitors out there with their knives sharpened, anxious to point out that Benetton, Body Shop and other social marketers are only mere mortals, endowed with the same frailties and foibles as the rest of us.

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