Can a Villain Become an Antihero?

Denver Skyline

In a great ongoing conversation with Amy Sample Ward about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and whether companies can authentically engage, we discussed whether they can simply create marketing fanfare or tell a genuine story. Authenticity must be something that truly reflects a culture, not some mechanized program designed to bluff stakeholders. This is particularly true of companies who have been publicly decried for great wrongs. It’s not easy to turn a villain into an antihero.

Not all companies are villains. But the point can be seen the same way. Trust in corporations hit an all time low last year. No one believes that companies — particularly public ones — wants to do more than turn a higher profit for their quarterly earnings statements. The resulting tensions with corporations’ burned communities — employees and customers alike — has resulted in the recent cause marketing turn to revamp and boost tarnished images (See David Conner’s 2nd CSR Internet Revolution post).

Makes sense to me. But to do so branding oneself as an angel doesn’t seem like an authentic path. If one considers the archetypal antihero, they are flawed, and lacking some of the attributes that make a heroic figure, as nobility of mind and spirit… But we love them anyway. Perhaps the best post I’ve read on the archetype is Jocelyn Harmon’s Dirty Harry story.

Perhaps a great example of flawed fanfare can be seen with Pepsi’s Refresh efforts. Surely $20 million in a free-for-all contest would impress many, but contest flaws have marred the efforts. Without a rudder or stated Theory of Change, the campaign seems to be marred.

As Zoetica CEO Beth Kanter said in a post last night, “This strategy is more appropriate for selling products, not social change. Let me say this. If brands want to be authentic in their social media for social good effort, they need a fusion approach that balances marketing with social change.”

Now authenticity isn’t showing flair or a rock song or even dropping $20 million. It’s about demonstrating a little heart and passion, even flaws. Be real, and that’s the problem with many corporate social responsibility programs. They lack a frank pragmatism about business and its internetworked ties to the community. To build trust, people need to believe you’re authentic. Thus over-glossed CSR programs without substantive cultural acknowledgment — even flaws — fail to compel people.

There’s no greater example of flawed CSR — of a villain bound to stay a villain — then WalMart’s current efforts (see Joe Waters: Ten Reasons Why CSR Programs Fail). As I discussed on Wednesday, the primary thrust of WalMart’s CSR effort is its green initiatives.

The big issue with WalMart isn’t the green contributions, which are substantive, albeit new. These are great and in the end are smart for the community… and the bottom line. The problem lies in its continued labor practices, it’s detrimental impact on local economies, and it’s terrible healthcare programs. When you read WalMart’s CSR page, you get no insight that the companyhas these flaws or is even trying to address them.

I wouldn’t like it if WalMart said we hire cheap to keep prices down, but I would respect it. Just like Dirty Harry may be abrasive, but does the right thing (sort of, in a very violent way). I would respect them even more if they invested in creating a more vibrant local economy and universal healthcare initiatives (WalMart does have healthcare initiatives, they just don’t directly address their own employees, just their customers).

Instead I get this, “We’re proud to be a “store of the community” for all of the communities we serve.” Still selling, still promoting. All of the local charity and foundation work does not really address WalMart or its problems. Thus for many, in spite of the fanfare, Walmart remains a villain.

Everyone understands business is business, but if you want CSR to work, a company needs to acknowledge its own place in the world, and its positive and negative impact in the ecosphere. An amends cannot be received if there’s no acknowledgment of wrong. Instead of selling and posturing all the time, simply try to be a part of and contribute, too. Show us who you (a.k.a. the employees and culture) really are.


  • Geoff — speaking for myself and NOT for the company which currently provides my salary…

    I disagree.

    What people want in a culture of overnight ratings and microwave meals is INSTANT change. Corporations, by their nature, do not do instant change very well.

    Good change, change that strikes at the very heart of culture, happens incrementally.

    If I were at Walmart, I would be insulted by your comment about their efforts. You want them to attack EVERY issue for which you deem them “evil,” all at once?

    You won’t see all of the efforts appearing on the CSR page at one time, for many reasons.

    1) Internal discussions should be just that. Internal. Once they’ve studied how best to proceed, then they can align their actions and tactics to effect that change. Or do you want Ford to announce goals about what it wants to do, without having a strategy and a plan to meet those goals?

    2) Expectations management. If you start trumpeting a cause, lip service won’t cut it. It’s best for Walmart (or any other company) to remain silent on issues until such time they can put some weight behind efforts to change. Creating a discussion about something you don’t yet know how to handle (even if you want to handle it) allows a public in a vacuum to set benchmarks that are completely unreasonable.

    3) Message clarity. Put too many initiatives on a site, and people will see noise instead of progress. There is only so much attention available at once, and competing with your own messaging for space makes very little sense.

    Your concept of the Anti-Hero is very well taken, but misses on a key point. The best Anti-Heroes in popular culture are primarily misunderstood, with deep character flaws. Their heroic nature is revealed through longer-arc narratives that are better serialized in novels and comics.

    The movie and TV versions of Anti-Heroes – by the nature of the medium – compress this conversion from Villain to Anti-Hero into some pivotal “Saul of Tarsus” moment, the blinding light that converts instantly. Reality doesn’t work that way.

    If people who TRULY wanted change and responsibility in Corporate America would celebrate incremental change and accept the time it takes, we’d have much better dialogue surrounding these issues. But we’re too impatient – and your willingness to slam Walmart for not completely satisfying your platform of issues as quickly as it has engaged others sends a message that you’ll never be satisfied, so why bother?

  • Ike:

    Thank you for your thoughts… We are going to agree to disagree on this one until I am blue in the face.

    Walmart’s CSR flaw lies not in that it’s taking action (applaud), it lies in 2 areas: 1) No acknowledgment of wrongs 2) no stated theory of change to measure against or to understand why Walmart invests. I will also add that its real marketing heavy and as a communicator smells of BS. I liked Sprint’s green program better because it seems sincere.

    I do think Walmart is on the right track IF they adapt and become more real and human, not with us, but with their employees and customers. I sense they are not honest in the current iteration.

    Love you, man, glad you commented.


  • Hi Geoff,

    As usual, thought-provoking piece! Thanks for including my post on Dirty Harry from Marketing for Nonprofits.

    I think you have an interesting idea here about corporations taken on a more authentic and nuanced persona after a scandal vs. trying to erase misdeeds by becoming “do-gooders” overnight. It would be a more authentic way to engage and might be refreshing to consumers, who are rightfully cynical. On the other hand, it’s a pretty risky strategy. I wonder what shareholders would say.


  • Jocelyn:

    I think you hit a core point that saving face is penultimate and that it takes a very special culture to demonstrate this level of transparency and authenticity. I think Dow is an example of this with all of their efforts towards water conservation (accountability). It is a basic tenant of crisis PR, so it’s just bridging this principle over into non-crisis moments.

    Thanks for the visit!


  • Geoff,

    It terms of setting companies on a direction to real and authentic, you raise some valid points. Personally, I’ve never understood why some companies cannot make simple connections to the organization and they communities in which they operate.

    I was talking with my intern about this today. The leap of faith in developing a strategic philanthropy need not be about marketing as much as it aligning the company to common interests. For example, it makes sense for a company that wants an educated workforce to support local education.

    Just some random thoughts on the subject, avoiding the WalMart rub up and still processing some of your thoughts here. :)


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  • I do not know about America but where I live I have to admit that there are some good CSR efforts that are starting up.
    Of course you have the villains or anti-heroes as you call them who manipulate CSR funds through corrupt NGOs or to the favourite charity managed by the CEO’s wife or daughter.

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