Go anywhere in India - or, it seems, much of Africa - and you’ll see whole houses, sometimes whole communities, painted with advertising for various brands, usually Coke, Pepsi or mobile phone networks. I’ve always assumed the payment for these adverts is probably very low, and a recent Ecologist story confirms it’s often just a few dollars, and often the promised payment or reward never materialises.
Every day community elder Lucia Gazite sits on a stool in front of her modest house selling soft drinks. Her home’s 12-metre wide exterior wall is entirely covered with a Pepsi logo. She agreed to it as ‘some men came’ – she doesn’t know where from – and promised her a sunshade to sit under whilst she sells her drinks. It’s been ‘at least seven months’ and she’s yet to receive anything.
Lucia says she’d like to paint over the advert but can’t afford to. ‘In 2009 I had a Vodacom advert on this wall but I never received anything. I hoped this would work out differently but it hasn’t. I’m angry but I don’t know what to do. My neighbour painted over their wall (also adorned with an enormous Pepsi logo) but I can’t.’
Across the road it’s a similar story for 23-year old Isa (she refused to give a last name). Her small bar is a red and white shrine to Coca-Cola. She was promised – ‘by the men who come with Coca-Cola signs and bunting’ - a refrigerator in return for allowing the painting. She’s visited four different Coca-Cola suppliers to obtain the fridge but was turned away by them all. This was eight months ago. The fridge is yet to materialise and the men that come with new Coca-Cola marketing materials claim to know nothing of the promised fridge.
No one had explained to Lucia and Isa that Avenida Acordos de Lusaka is one of the most high-value, strategic marketing locations in Maputo. Both gasped at the thousands paid by brands to use the official billboards scattered down the road.
‘I had no idea,’ said Isa. ‘If I’d known I’d have asked for money. A few hundred dollars a month would change my life. I don’t mind putting up a sign for free so customers know I sell Coke. But my whole bar has been painted – and I don’t just sell Coke.’
So we have two things going on here: companies are promising people very little to paint their houses, much less than they pay for billboard space in the same area; and companies aren’t fulfilling the promises and actually paying or rewarding people.
One of these is a scandal. One is not. But the Ecologist seems to treat them both equally - as if we’re supposed to be shocked that Coke didn’t tell Lusia and Isa that they should be charging it more to paint their house.
I realise corporate social responsibility is a thing nowadays, and all to the good, but can we please stop being so naive? Trying to pay as little as possible, even when your supplier is deeply poor, is wrong, I suppose, maybe, a bit. But it’s hardly the same as defrauding people, which is what seems to be happening, and is profoundly wrong and against the law.
But the Ecologist can’t seem to be able to register the difference. The danger is that an actual crime, which people should be angry about, is buried under a discussion of a merely culturally worrisome practice.
I see this lack of distinction everywhere when it comes to corporations and development. In, for example, the endless discussions of ‘land grabs,’ which often talk as if buying land and evicting poor farmers from it is a crime. It’s not; perhaps it should be, but it’s not. If you rent your land, you can be evicted from it. But where information is being kept from farmers that should enable them to challenge the evictions, that’s a scandal. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the scandal than the merely unfortunate outcome?
There’s a difference between violating standards of ethics which high-minded Western consumers hold, and violating the universally understood rules of fair business. I’m not saying let’s not tackle the former, but let’s start with the low-hanging fruit, hey?
What to call this lack of perspective? It’s not “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good,” but it’s something related. Let’s call it “letting a shame draw attention from a scandal.”