Monday, October 01, 2007

Problems With Ribbon Campains

"Ribbon Campaigns" have become the required fashion symbol for a variety of causes.

While I generally respect, possibly even actively support, the original cause that these ribbons are designed for, they are also more than somewhat problematic.

There's two key problems with ribbon campaigns - commercialization and distortion.

As the CBC points out, you can't always know how much of that "ribboned purchase" actually goes to the charity involved. Even phrases like "100% of proceeds" are ambiguous because "proceeds" itself is not clear. Do they mean 100% of the purchase price? or perhaps the "profit"? (and just how is "profit" defined - what "costs" are being tacked onto the cost of purchasing the raw merchandise? Lists including staff, floorspace and coffee in the back room come to mind as ways that cynical accounting can whittle away at what most people would assume is "the donation" part of their purchase. ("Entertainment Coupon" books make me similarly uneasy for the same reasons)

Thanks, but in such a situation, I'll quietly just write the charity involved a cheque - it's easier, and at least I know how much went to the foundation in question. What they do with it is another issue - but at least _I_ know that the amount I intended actually arrived there.

The other kind of subversion that happens is when the campaign takes on a life and meaning of its own. This is what has happened with the now irritating "support the troops" campaign running around Canada. I've commented on the politics surrounding this campaign before, but I think it's important to recognize that there are those who choose to twist the meaning of those little yellow and black decals to their own ends.

Why does this happen? Because the decal itself is fundamentally devoid of any real meaning. What does the phrase "Support the Troops" mean? It doesn't mean anything in itself - consequently it takes on an arbitrary meaning. The notion of "supporting the troops" means different things to different people. In my opinion, "supporting the troops" means getting them out of involvement in an unnecessary and ethically dubious war in Afghanistan (until that happens, it also means that we do what we can to ensure they are equipped to defend themselves effectively while they are there, and have access to the psychiatric treatments that many will need after spending a few tours of duty in a war zone). For others, it means that we should endorse the mission they are on.

Similarly, other "ribbon campaigns" suffer from a degree of ambiguity - the pink ribbon breast cancer campaign is admirable in its own right, but ambiguous as well. Because the pink ribbon campaign has a discrete group behind it, the message is a little more consistent - and I think most people would love to see us be able to cure cancers. But the ribbon itself doesn't actually tell us what action we should take. Yes, the Breast Cancer foundation would like us to donate money, but really without a clear message behind it, that same pink ribbon could quickly turn into a dozen other meanings in popular culture - and some of them not very nice.

The "Support the Troops" meme (it's not a campaign per se - it's never really been in anybody's control) is all the more troubling for that very reason. There is no message to it - instead a few people have seized the notion for their own reasons - whether that is to make political points, or to make a few bucks selling paper graffiti for your car.

Although ribbons make a wonderful visual to build a campaign around (they are simple, easily identified, etc.), I think they have also run their course as an effective marketing tool. There's too many of them out there, and some of them are utterly arbitrary - devoid of meaning or coherence - diluting the significance of the real campaigns.

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