No More And The Ethics Of Awareness

NO-MORE-MUG-11ozI was aware of the flimsiness of No More, the NFL’s designated mouth piece to show that it cares about domestic violence, when I recently reviewed the Super Bowl ads. It wasn’t the place to raise the issue, but now Deadspin writer Diana Moskovitz had done so in explosive fashion, in a piece called “No More, The NFL’s Domestic Violence Partner, Is A Sham.”

I think “sham” is a bit harsh, but her point is well-taken: the organization doesn’t really do anything to stop domestic violence. Its sole goal is to raise awareness of the problem by creating a “brand” that can be plastered on t-shirts, coffee mugs, mouse pads, stickers and tote bags. Oh—there’s also a pledge you can take. That’s about it. If you expected that the organization giving us the frightening ad featuring the terrified woman calling 911 was more than this, I guess “sham” may be fair. “Scam” may even be fair.

As Moslkovitz explains with barely restrained anger, No More is all about PR and feeling virtuous. It was inspired by the AIDS ribbons, which in turn were inspired by the yellow ribbons people wore to show support for the Iranian hostages in 1979, which in turn were inspired by…a Tony Orlando and Dawn song. As with Michelle Obama’s hashtag appeal to brutal Nigerian terrorists, none of these symbolic efforts are substantive, but they do make the good, caring people who perform them feel like they are solving a problem. Of course, they aren’t. Moskovitz:

“You know why they are doing this? Because it works. Because it makes money. Because we love pretending to care, especially when a brand makes it easier for us to do by removing all the pain, horror, darkness, and self-reflection and turning concern for others into products—preferably ones that can be worn. Do those teenage boys wearing “I Heart Boobies” really care about breast cancer? Probably not, but at least they’re thinking about it, right? And even if they don’t think about it, they generated money (a nickel on the dollar, maybe, but better than nothing) for a good cause!

This is how low our standards are. Gesture toward a good cause and you’re practically unassailable. No More gave Goodell and the NFL a cheap and perfect way out of a public relations disaster and we shouldn’t be surprised. We do the exact same thing every day when we throw on our Toms, our pink baseball hats, and our latest rubber bracelet of choice, shopping our way into another day with pure hearts and clean consciences.”

The grandfather of all such empty awareness enterprises was the original incarnation of The Hunger Project under the marketing genius of Werner Erhard, inventor of E.S.T. The Hunger Project attracted millions of dollars with a promise to “end world hunger” that involved doing nothing substantive to attain that goal, other than “raising awareness.”  Eventually the scam was undeniable, Erhard was jettisoned, and a somewhat more activist Hunger Project was built on the cheesy foundation of the real one. Nevertheless, Erhard had proven that there was big money to be made by simply giving people a way to show they care, whether or not the care ever translated into real solutions to the problem they supposedly cared about.

Are awareness raising exercises like NO More unethical, as the Deadspin article implies? It’s a difficult question. To the extent that they encourage people to think they are more than that, yes. That’s misrepresentation. If they conspire with an organization like the NFL to create an illusion that the organization is being proactive in efforts to address a societal problem when in truth it is just selling branded junk and saying the right things, yes, that’s misleading the public. If such efforts take resources and volunteers away from more productive programs, and deceive members of the public into believing that they are helping to solve a serious social problem by the color lipstick they wear, that is also unethical, because it is irresponsible and incompetent, harming the very cause it is supposed to be helping.

There is a legitimate role for promoting public awareness, if only because some members of the public who become aware do take significant action. If No More is unethical, it is because it knows most people won’t do anything, and makes its money by letting them pretend that they are.

And now, a song…

14 thoughts on “No More And The Ethics Of Awareness

  1. Any good business firm needs to deliver the product and its associated value to the consumer. Building awareness of the product or service is appropriate and necessary but ultimately you have to deliver what was promised. Otherwise you are taking money for doing nothing.

    If the people just buy the ribbon, wristband, or other trinket to feel good about themselves and not concerned about making sure the contributed funds actually are used to solve the problem in question then they are the scammers because the organization gave them the value the buyer/contributor wanted and they then present themselves as problem solvers. It is a form of stolen valor.

    If given a choice,I would rather give a dollar to a homeless person that uses the dollar to buy liquor than give a dollar to an organization that uses most of it to fund a lavish lifestyle for its staff and expensive fundraisers. At least then I know the recipient got the entire value of my contribution irrespective of whether I approve of it or not.

  2. Yes: A problem-solving organization that spends too much on promoting awareness of a problem, and not enough on solving the problem is a…
    RACKET. (What problem, and what organization, am I thinking of?)

  3. There are good rule of thumb ways to spot a good charity from a bad one. If they send you a lot of mail with flashy designs, “gifts”, address stickers and celebrity endorsements, it’s likely something to be avoided. If the director has a half million dollar annual salary, that also tells you a lot. If you do some digging and find out that less than half of their take actually goes to those that the charity claims to help, write them off.

  4. Can’t wait to see the t-shirt with the big red X across the raised fist: “I stopped beating my wife (husband, girlfriend, children, dog…). Ask me how.”

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