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Companies that embrace social movements for PR or profit do more harm than good

October 30, 2020

Without a genuine commitment to change, organizations can do real damage to important causes.

Following the recent calls for racial justice and the campaign for world governments to build back better following the global pandemic, companies are anxious to implement new policies that will address existing social inequalities and threats to the environment. However, unless they are genuine in their commitment to change, organizations risk doing real damage to — and diminishing support for — the causes they initially set out to support.

Professor Rachel Ruttan

This insight comes from new research that will be featured in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, led by Rachel Ruttan, an assistant professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at the Rotman School of Management.

For this investigation, Ruttan was interested in ‘sacred values’ — such as protecting human life, preserving endangered species and patriotism — which people are unwilling to compromise on or attach a price to. She wondered what happened when these values were tested and companies tried to use them to their advantage — like in past instances where beauty companies used feminism to further their brand or sell products.

“These marketing campaigns seem to cheapen the issue,” she explains. “In their efforts to sell soap and t-shirts to us, these companies might shift our perception of feminism and other movements.”

Her research comes out at an especially relevant time, as consumers recently saw organizations scramble to issue statements in support for those demanding justice for George Floyd.

“This past summer, it seems like we received emails from every company we’ve ever interacted with,” says Ruttan. “From a PR perspective, I understand the instinct to act quickly and that issuing a statement early might seem good for business. Still, in the absence of real change and without engaging in difficult and important conversations, these statements often come off as hollow. These organizations might be doing real damage to important causes.”

To test out this theory, Ruttan completed various U.S.-based studies where participants were presented with glimpses of companies endorsing values in a disingenuous or self-serving way. In the studies, participants read about hypothetical cases where senior leaders discussed: incorporating the American flag in campaign materials to boost profits, launching green campaigns to improve their image and introducing diversity programs to serve their bottom line.

“Ultimately, when companies embrace values disingenuously, they undermine the causes they set out to benefit from.”

—Rachel Ruttan, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management

Ruttan also asked individuals about their opinions and views on real-world examples of corporations sponsoring grassroots movements and paid patriotism (where sports organizations receive funds for flag presentations or organizing activities honouring members of the military during games).

She found that individuals who observed companies using values to serve their bottom line saw those values as less sacred and were less likely to donate to supporting causes (compared to their peers who hadn’t been informed of these ulterior motives).

“When certain values are brought into the market sphere and are used instrumentally by companies, those values become diminished to us,” Ruttan explains. “Consumers also reduce their commitment to those causes.”

“Ultimately, when companies embrace values disingenuously, they undermine the causes they set out to benefit from.”

More than that, during this very important time, there’s another risk that companies face when they don’t honour their commitments.

“Consumers are better informed and more skeptical than ever,” says Ruttan. "If their values are threatened, people will step up to defend them. Consumers will come after organizations that don’t put money and action behind their words.”

Written by Rebecca Cheung | More Rotman Insights »

Meet the researcher

Rachel Ruttan

Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management