Hunter and the Dame: “Activate Self Esteem”?
When I was younger, I was a great admirer (as are many) of Hunter S. Thompson. He produced little of merit from the early 70s until death, but his earlier works are masterpieces of postwar literature and semi-journalism. One of his best sayings was ‘Never trust a hippie’. Now I am sure that there are perfectly nice hippies out there – count some amongst my best friends etc but in general old Hunter had a point. In many ways they are modern Puritans – people possessed with a self-determined superior morality that does not bear or enjoy scrutiny, out there to change the world no matter what the Man thinks, and whose every lifestyle choice or consumptive act takes place within the same special matrix.
Smart hippies know how to make a lot of money though – there is cash hunger and ruthless capitalist instinct under those kaftans. Many successful enterprises (The Gap, Whole Foods Market, Dennis Publishing etc etc) have roots in the 60s counterculture, and that is no bad thing as self-belief can be great fuel for entrepreneurs. It just feels more honest when they are more focused on doing business than proselytising.
Dame Anita Roddick, now no longer with us, is a prime example. In death, her sainthood is ever more assured and the only skeptical voice I’ve come across so far was from the sometimes interesting Anne McElvoy in the Standard, who mentioned that her cosmetic anti-commercial posturing struck a jarring note given the nakedly corporate intentions of her enterprise and her eventual sell out to a multinational seemingly opposed to everything she had stood for. It is amazing that gross, shameless hypocrisy on this elephantine level has not contaminated the obituaries more, but that’s the value of good PR for you. If she really cared about making sure her plucky chain ended up in ethical hands, Unilever would have been a good choice.
It is a truism that consumers now want a greater sense of value from the goods and services they purchase than just price and luxury. Where this means people become suspicious of disease ridden £2 chickens or are willing to pay a little more for quality and individuality this can only be a good thing. Man has always defined himself in some way by his choices and possessions, it is just when people think that choosing one shower gel over another is a revolutionary political act I have to reach for the sick bag.
I’ve always felt ethics has a major place in good business practice, but that to be worthy of credit it should be “a still small voice, not a megaphone”. History will judge the massive, unsexy philanthropic efforts of Bill Gates, George Soros and Warren Buffet rather more impactful than the loud posings of a nice goop merchant but that is neither here nor there for us marketers. Until people realise the dizzying complexity of the issues of our world and the boring primacy of state actors in effecting change, conscience driven consumerism will be here to stay and we should be wary of putting ourselves in its crosshairs.