Poverty Pitch

The intersection of American business and global poverty

[VIDEO] One small step for TOMS, one giant leap for …?

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Skeptical 3rd World Kid says "So you mean to tell me, you ended poverty by buying a pair of shoes?"

Skeptical 3rd World Kid talks about Toms
(Meme created through http://memegenerator.net)

In a Media Studies class, my Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) asked the class for ways in which advertising has been used to make consumers feel like they have a social impact. I raised my hand and gave the example of TOMS Shoes and their One-for-One Movement.  She flashed a smile and said that TOMS was precisely what she was going to talk about.

It is no surprise that both my GSI and I immediately thought of TOMS when we started on this topic. Kelsey Timmerman, the author of Where Am I Wearing?, points out that TOMS as the first thing that pops into student’s heads when they think about businesses doing good for the world. His critique of TOMS Shoes’ charitable efforts, emphasizes that the impact of TOMS Shoes is not that they give shoes to the poor, but that they bring in the issue of poverty into the thoughts of their everyday consumers.

Timmerman’s argument is not that TOMS’ campaign is ineffective, but that they could do better. He writes, “yes, someone giving you a pair of shoes would sure be nice if you didn’t have a pair. But a job that allows parents to send their kids to school could change your family tree forever.” By this he means that providing the poor with jobs would provide longer lasting effects than giving them shoes. In his 2012 update to this blog post, he also challenges the consumers of TOMS to learn more about the program they support.

The advertising that goes TOMS’ One-for-One Movement and other similar programs only tell us part of the story of poverty. In that Media Studies class, my GSI showed us a video (which you can watch below) of a speech by philosopher Slavoj Zizek that features TOMS as an example of the role charity plays on our economy.

Our class discussion ended with the role of advertising in shaping our identity and making us feel like we can make a difference. But, Zizek’s speach takes that thought a step further and discusses how this idea of conscious consumerism gives us that warm fuzzy feeling inside, but makes us forget about the complex social structures that cause these issues.

It seems that these companies have more impact on the minds of the consumers rather than the lives of their beneficiaries. But I would say that that is not necessarily a bad thing. Consumers are part of the society that lives in the social structures that cause poverty. Does our social awareness really start or stop after we finish a purchase? Regardless of what brand of shoes we wear, the fact is that TOMS reminds us that poverty is a pressing issue. As the world’s policy makers, activists, CEOs, academics, or voters, we may not be reading up on new development theories but we might just be slipping on a pair of TOMS as we walk out of our homes and make important decisions that impact society.

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8 thoughts on “[VIDEO] One small step for TOMS, one giant leap for …?

  1. Great picture!!! But if I can’t buy TOMS what should I buy??? 😦

    • Thanks! Dont get me wrong though, buying shoes from TOMS does have its social benefits (getting someone shoes for a couple of years or getting people to talk about poverty action) – the argument is that the company and the consumers shouldn’t stop there. It is important to remember that there is no quick fix to poverty. There is so much more that could be done to address the structural causes of poverty that make it a much more complicated issue than can be addressed through one ad campaign.

  2. I watched the same video in Ananya Roy’s Global Poverty class! Your discussion reminds me of the (Product)RED business model and its efforts to fight AIDS in Africa. I think consumers could probably gain a deeper understanding of the campaign’s intentions before purchasing a new red-colored ipod.

    • I agree! I’m pretty sure not everyone will take the time to do so on their own, but the few that do (like Professor Roy) can spark discussions on the issues that surround such campaigns and definitely keep the topic on people’s minds.

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  5. This post and the video of Zizek’s speech totally reminds me of Christian’s post (http://smarttourist.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/good-intentions-bad-practices-voluntourism/) about an article that describes how volunteerism and all these programs to go play with kids in orphanages and build houses actually isn’t doing so much good after all. All these programs play to our sense of charity and giving-back and solidarity but really it’s only doing good in that it makes us feel better but it doesn’t do much in the long run for the people or places we are visiting and volunteering. So what can we do instead? Really thought-provoking stuff.

  6. Pingback: Letter to the founder of TOMS | What makes me come alive...

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