How many of you (non-Americans) know of Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” the loveable, furry orange, ultimate tree-hugging champion?
How many of you went to see the new movie in the past few weeks?
Then surely, some of you must have heard about the somewhat odd controversy surrounding this movie’s marketing campaigns by various corporate sponsors. It’s funny to begin with of course, that a movie character defined by his resistance to corporations’ greed and their historical disregard for the environment’s health, should be endorsed by a long list of corporations at the same time! Smells like greenwashing?
Not so fast. Experienced sustainability pundits like Marc Gunther have noted appropriately in articles about the issue that the judgment of a “sell-out” can seldom be made in a black and white manner. More precisely, given that we had a big set of corporations sponsoring this movie, some with better CSR/sustainability records than others, the question seems if it is possible to call the Lorax a sell-out or an earnest effort at corporate responsibility in general. Also, how can we test the effectiveness of so many companies involved in such a veritable “CSR smorgsabord”?
I guess you could call this the “Lorax Test.” What does it measure, you ask?
Assuming that the trend of corporate sponsorships of movies and other forms of public entertainment affiliated with sustainability and environmental responsibility will continue into the future, one should ask if it is possible for corporations to isolate themselves individually by virtue of their respective “sustainability brands”, or if a few bad cooks could spoil the proveribal soup for everyone.
Take the Lorax case, which boasts a list of sponsors numbering a whopping 69 global partners that include a truly motley crew between HP (computers), DoubleTree by Hilton (hotels), Comcast (cable TV), Wholefoods Markets (organic food), Mazda (cars) and IHOP (pancakes).
Rounding out this litany of corporate sponsors we then also have a no less diverse, international roster of non-corporate, pro-environment/pro-preservation defenders such as Greenpeace and the WWF, the Natural History Museum of Milan and Clean Up Australia. Did I forgot to mention the official support of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well?
While the latter group by definition of their full-time world-saving mandates stand beyond typical reproach and scrutiny as to their intentions, the same could not necessarily be said about the former corporate partners.
For instance, while companies like HP have historically done rather well in sustainability (#2 on Newsweek’s Green Rankings), the same is not necessarily true for Mazda (which received rather unkind-but-amusing flack for using the Lorax to promote its new, “Truffula Tree certified” SUVs), debatable for Wholefoods (#106 on Newsweek’s Green Rankings and not even on the list of Corporate Knights’ Global 100) and, well, somewhat incomprehensible for IHOP (what the heck, pancakes??).
What do you think, after seeing this clip from the Mazda campaign?
So what is the Lorax Test? Perhaps it could measure whether or not your claim to promote a certain social or environmental goal (like the EPA’s involvement to “engage the youth of America in environmental protection”), given the set of partners you collaborate with, achieves the proper public awareness and recognition desired.
It poses the following questions:
- Is affiliation to an intrinsically environmental product or image sufficient to merit credit as a “good company”?
- Does the participation of (and unhealthy attention caused by) partners with questionable sustainability brands detract from the more genuinely good intentions of the more “CSR-proven” companies among them?
- What should the criteria (if any) be by which sponsors are eligible to participate besides the money they offer?
- Is the goal just the largest possible awareness and PR about a commonly agreed message (e.g., save the trees), or is the goal about specific engagement messages advanced by individual corporate sponsors given their brands, assets and CSR strategies (e.g., HP’s Print the Lorax Website)?
If the ultimate goal is simply awareness, I suppose that the current approach to round up a ton of companies (and commensurate $$$) with varying degrees of environmental “street cred” is sufficient to flood the public imagination with loose affiliations (“something about the environment, wasn’t it?”).
However, if the goal is to create more engagement, I fear that the sheer volume of different CSR (or pseudo-CSR) programs and themes utilizing the same character end up confusing and diluting instead of focusing attention. And that is somewhat of a pity given the potential that more coordinated CSR activity arguably could have with such an opportunity, in my opinion.
Still, in the end, this controversy may be a moot point from the organizers’ perspective anyway. The audience was excited, the movie raked in as of last weekend about $158 million, and by now it seems clear that most parents (who might be the ones in the biggest position to actually do something about the environment in the short term) couldn’t care less about trees, climate change, pollution or any of that heavy stuff. They just want to see a fun movie with their kids.
Can we blame them?
Meanwhile, can the CSR gurus here run the Lorax test and tell the rest of us what to make of it?
As for myself, pardon me but I am off to see this movie (when it comes out in Korea, that is) … taking the subway, naturally.