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.