The weakness of the campaigning consumer

I wrote earlier this week about boycotts and the pervasive idea that they “don’t work”. I hope I’ve explained why that’s the wrong way to think about your choices; you can’t punish Nestle or Vodafone by withholding your custom, but where you spend your money should still matter to you.

Underlying the idea of boycotts (and the idea that boycotts don’t work) are assumptions about what it means to be a customer, to “hold the purse strings”. But the direction of power isn’t as simple as that sounds. Here’s a story to illustrate that.

Just under a year ago, an advertising agency called Karmarama made a huge mistake: a “bike safety” campaign that mocked the victims of road accidents. I’m certain they intended to stir up controversy with the campaign, but I don’t think they were expecting the tidal wave of fury unleased on social media.

Other bloggers have talked about why this campaign was offensive, and, more importantly, how this kind of language actually makes the roads even more dangerous for cyclists. So I don’t want to rehash that here. I want to talk about how I tried to take action.

I’m not a direct customer of Karmarama because I’m not a big brand who needs an advertising agency. There’s no reason why they should care about my views (apart from basic human decency). But someone on Twitter pointed out that lots of people are customers or potential customers of the brands who use Karmarama for their ads.

I didn’t contact all of Karmarama’s clients, but I contacted Plusnet, Costa Coffee, Age UK and Bombardier. My general point, paraphrased: “I want to make you aware of what this agency is doing, because I know you’ve used them in the past; I hope you will share my horror at their behaviour and assure me that you won’t be using them again in the future.

In the case of the three businesses I was writing as a customer or potential customer; in the case of the charity Age UK, I was writing as someone who has donated money in the past.

My first problem in doing this quickly was that none of these organisations provide an email address for contact. You have to use a webform, which, like most webforms, demands huge chunks of information from you without actually guaranteeing a response to your message. Costa Coffee also pulled the old trick of requiring details of a specific visit to a specific coffee shop, presumably in order to discourage contact about other things.

Anyway, I wrote to four organisations and I expected four responses. I assumed that lots of concerned people had already contacted Karmarama clients and that the organisations in question would have cobbled together a stock response for all those queries. The reality was slightly different.

Bombardier was an easy one: they ignored my email completely. I suppose they don’t mind upsetting cyclists because cyclists don’t drink beer, right? Plusnet responded asking me to “contact Karmarama directly about this issue”. I replied back:

I have already contacted Karmarama directly about this issue. My question is to you. Will Plusnet be using them as an agency in the future? That affects my decision about whether I use Plusnet as my broadband provider in the future!

Plusnet's response:

Hi Kate,

This incident is the result of a very individual set of circumstances which Karmarama would be happy to talk to you about directly.

If you like, we can pass your contact phone number to them and ask them to contact you (let me know if you'd like us to do this).

Alternatively, you can email >[name redacted] at the agency at [email address redacted].

This, to me, is where it gets interesting. It sounds as if they’re trying to defend Karmarama here, and there’s clearly been some contact between Plusnet and Karmarama about how to deal with angry Plusnet customers, resulting in their offer to pass on my phone number. The conversation went on a bit longer, but the general gist was that Plusnet refused to condemn Karmarama’s actions or tell me whether or not they would be hiring Karmarama for advertising work in the future. Age UK responded to say they had discussed the matter with Karmarama

and have accepted their explanation that this was the initiative of a member of staff not of the company, and that the person responsible has apologised wholeheartedly for the distress caused.  Any further questions about this are best addressed to Karmarama.

They then reproduced the statement from Karmarama that was doing the rounds at the time, the one about the campaign being a “well-intentioned, but misguided and inappropriate, campaign”. Same thing from Costa Coffee, who responded that they had discussed the matter with Karmarama

and have accepted their explanation that this was the initiative of a member of staff not of the company, and that the person responsible has apologised wholeheartedly for the distress caused.   We are sorry for any distress this did cause you  and any further questions about this are best addressed to Karmarama.

Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it? Maybe Costa Coffee and Age UK got together and agreed to put out near-identical statements about the agency they share. But it seems more likely that Karmarama drafted a stock response for all its clients to use and those two clients used it. What I find fascinating is what that reveals about the relationship between agency and client. I wrote to those businesses as an actual or potential customer, with the childishly simple boycott logic of “If you don’t do what I want you to do, you don’t get my money.” I assumed that the Karmarama clients I contacted would have a response based on the same logic: “They’ve annoyed lots of people and made us look as if we have poor taste in agencies, so let’s stop giving them our money and pick one of the hundreds of other talented agencies out there.” But they didn’t. Their actual responses suggested two interesting assumptions: 1. If an agency you’ve hired does something bad, you don’t have to sever the relationship or even speak out against the bad behaviour. 2. If an agency you’ve hired does something bad, you’d better work with that agency to agree a strategy for handling complaints. Point 1 is textbook “boycotts don’t work” stuff: it’s OK to spend money without looking too closely at the ethics of the organisation who gets that money. To put it another way: you as the client have no responsibility. Point 2 is fairly sensible image management, and it comes with the assumption that you as the client do have responsibility. That’s why you put work into agreeing a response strategy and pushing complaints towards the agency’s PR operation.

So which is it? Is the Karmarama client accepting responsibility or not? Maybe the apparent contradiction is resolved when you ask who they’re responsible to. Who are these businesses helping when they respond to my complaints with a message that says almost nothing and was written for them by Karmarama? They’re not helping me. They’re not helping any of the people who lost loved ones in road accidents in 2012 and were upset by the campaign. They’re helping...Karmarama.And that’s a strange thing, because it implies that somehow, when you give an organisation money for a service, they get some power over you, you get some responsibility towards them - and not the other way round.

Surprisingly often, I encounter the assumption that being a customer of an organisation means you're not allowed to criticise that organisation. It's surprising to me because my own default assumption is that the person who holds the purse-strings has the power, but it’s clear that many people and organisations don’t see things that way. It’s clear that in this case, the businesses I contacted were more concerned about preserving their relationship with their ad agency (who they pay money to) than with getting or retaining customers (who pay them money). We already know how little the individual customer counts when you’re asking large organisations to behave more ethically. (I hope I’ve explained why “boycotts don’t work” is the right answer to the wrong question.) But we haven't really explored the more complex relationships further up the supply chain. Secondary boycotts - “I will boycott you if you don’t boycott them” - might work if the relationships were straightforward. But they’re usually not. My point here: many people, including me, believe that we have “consumer power” and a duty to use that power for good. But big organisations with more real consumer power than we’ll ever have as individuals are choosing to deny that power and frame their business relationships in a completely different way. We use up our energy attempting secondary boycotts; they throw up their hands and say “Any further questions about this are best addressed to someone else.” I’m not saying you’re powerless as a consumer, because you’re not. I’m just saying: don’t feel bad about the lapses, the mini-compromises, the less-than-ideal choices you make as a consumer, because you are still doing more as a single person than the likes of Plusnet with hundreds of employees. Worrying about the tiny choices, especially the ones where all the options are undesirable anyway, will drain your tank. It matters where your money goes, but it also matters that you don’t use up too much of your energy trying to be an ideologically pure consumer. If you want a better world, you’ll need some of that energy for other work.