When it comes to corporate social responsibility Hollywood occasionally gives us cause to cheer. For example, the 2006 film Blood Diamond successfully drew attention to modern day slavery and exploitation in Africa, which is usually funded by blood diamonds – diamonds mined in conflict countries and often used to finance brutal wars and dictatorships. Or think of 2000’s Erin Brockovich which, also based on a true story, drew attention to how an energy company had polluted ground water and harmed the health of those living in its vicinity. Evil corporations, and capitalism, are often the target of Hollywood’s ire.
Unfortunately, however, Hollywood’s do-gooding is all too occasional and all too limited. In actual fact, much of what Hollywood produces often contributes to social exploitation of the weakest in society. Hollywood simply has no real sense of what it can or should do to be more responsible socially. It is in fact responsible for much of what is wrong in Western societies, and is beginning to contribute to the deterioration of Eastern societies as well as its films and music penetrate Asian markets.
Think for example about Hollywood’s leading role in the disintegration of the family and weakening of social bonds; of teenage pregnancies and rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases; of drug and alcohol abuse; of how it has popularized the use of foul language. Think, too, of the way it models violent crime and of the excesses of violence we now see from LA to Brixton to Johannesburg.
Rather than celebrating Hollywood’s achievements it is high time to ask what Hollywood’s social impact really is.
Corporate social responsibility (or CSR) is a concept that has acquired cultic status in the business world. Corporations spend millions of dollars each year undertaking programs to improve the societies in which they operate and copious quantities of ink and broadband to report on their achievements. Boards expend endless amounts of time debating what social responsibility programmes their corporations should engage in. And a whole industry of consultants has developed, your present correspondent included, to advise corporations on what is good corporate citizenship.
Regrettably, Hollywood doesn’t appear to have engaged in CSR where it can have a real impact.
A golden rule of CSR is that you need to link your social impact programmes to something relevant to your business; or, more accurately, put the need to do good where your company does the most harm. Hence you find that oil, mining and chemical companies, for example, try to have a social impact that addresses environmental degradation. Banks and financial institutions usually invest in financial education, micro-finance in emerging markets, or entrepreneurship programmes. Issues linked to their brand attributes or to reverse their direct and indirect negative impacts.
Hollywood, by comparison, has done little if anything toward creating a social impact where it does most harm. True, it sometimes strains towards the heights of moral seriousness, as in Blood Diamond, but it also descends to the ridiculous. Livia Firth, wife of The King’s Speech star Colin Firth, for example, has tried to inspire fellow celebrities to use their star power via the Green Carpet Awards. At this year’s Golden Globe Awards she did her bit by wearing an Armani gown made of recycled plastic bottles to “promote social justice, environmental integrity, and the very best in design”, according to her blog.
Whether or not fashion aficionados follow Ms Firth’s example and wear clothes made from recycled garbage doesn’t really matter, though, when Hollywood’s constant stream of superficial garbage and questionable morality undermines social standards and creates long-term social problems. Sadly, the sexual objectification of teenagers by the fashion and film industry doesn’t appear to be on anyone’s list of target abuses deserving of an award.
Think about this for a minute. Since 1962, there have been 22 James Bond films. In that time the dashing and debonair super spy has bedded on average two women per film (presumably there are numerous others between missions for Her Majesty). Yet 007 is never confronted by any of these damsels over a single unwanted pregnancy. Nor does he seem to contract any sexually transmitted diseases. Probability alone suggests that such a cavalier attitude to sex should have consequences that would have left Mr Bond more than a little shaken.
While on-screen philandering seems to have few repercussions, it’s not quite the same story in the real world, particularly for young adults who have been influenced by a steady diet of easy Hollywood sex. For example, the US Centres for Disease Control estimates 19 million new infections of sexually transmitted diseases each year, with more than 50 per cent of sexually active teenagers infected. Interestingly, this situation exists despite safe sex campaigns, “better” sex education in schools and the easy availability of more effective prophylactics.
While Hollywood cannot be blamed for all of this it surely has to carry some of the responsibility because of its power to influence society and especially young and impressionable minds. The power of Hollywood to influence social standards can be seen in two things: firstly, cigarette smoking; but, more importantly, in how the movie industry has used its power to push particular agendas, some good, some questionable.
Smoking makes for an interesting case study. Until recently it was prevalent in films, especially as films reflected social reality. Film characters puffed their way through the Golden Years of cinema because everyone smoked. Now that we know as much as we know about the dangers of smoking, the practice is less prevalent in films – and practically taboo in children’s movies. Indeed there have even been attempts to airbrush cigarettes and cigarette smoke out of classic films as society has recognized Hollywood’s influence in this small area. And many governments around the world have rightly placed restrictions on tobacco advertising in cinemas and on television, precisely because these two areas have the most impact on young minds.
But it’s odd that, while we believe advertising and approaches to entertainment can bring about abstinence from smoking (and other drug abuse), we don’t have the same view of the power of advertising and entertainment to change sexual behavior, particularly amongst young adults. In fact, advertising goes out of its way to use sex to sell consumer products, while Hollywood uses it to pull crowds to movies. Even films targeted at teenagers and pre-teens often use sex and sexual innuendo to attract audiences – for example, the whole promotion of the soon to be released The Lucky One (rated PG-13) is laced with sexual titillation for 13 year old boys and girls.
Hollywood has a social impact all right; but it is not always a positive one. Indeed, consider how life has imitated art in recent times as two of Hollywood stars’ real life dramas mirrored those of their on-screen bad boy personas last year. Charlie Sheen, formerly the lead actor of Two and a Half Men, was fired by Warner Bros studios for living the life that was glorified by his character in the popular sit-com. David Duchovny, who plays a sex addicted writer in Californication’, checked into rehab after his life started to spiral out of control.
Perhaps Warner Bros thought firing Sheen was socially responsible. Never mind that countless teenage boys have learnt how to objectify women by watching the antics of his on-screen character, now back on air with Ashton Kutcher in Sheen’s role. Ironically Kutcher is personally committed to the fight against human trafficking and child prostitution. I guess this “thinking man’s actor” hasn’t thought too deeply about the impact Two and a Half Men has on social mores and moral values. Perhaps Kutcher just doesn’t see the irony.
What will it take to pressure Hollywood to adopt a more socially responsible approach to entertainment? More of us turning off our televisions and eschewing the movies it churns out? Unfortunately, that seems unlikely. Not enough parents are willing to take a stand and boycott the entertainment industry’s drivel. And too many don’t even know what their children are watching and listening to — or perhaps they don’t even care enough — to make an impact. In the meantime, kids will continue to listen to foul language in what passes as music and be entertained by glorified sex and violence on large and small screens. All the while governments will continue to commission studies into falling civil standards, gun violence, and rising teenage sexual activity and corresponding rises in STD levels.
At the minimum, governments could apply stricter film rating systems to force Hollywood to clean up its act. But that’s only going to happen when concerned parents make their voices heard through the ballot box. Sadly, however, for most people it’s not a big enough issue to rally around. But it should be.
The 19th Century British parliamentarian and political philosopher Edmund Burke said that for evil to triumph it is only necessary that good men remain silent (at least the quote is attributed to him). Perhaps it’s time for the silent majority to speak up. Write to your parliamentarians and congressmen; lobby your country’s film entertainment standards authorities. Do something other than sit there and watch the drivel Hollywood dishes out.
Alistair Nicholas is Executive Vice President, Asia Pacific, with public relations firm Weber Shandwick and its public affairs arm Powell Tate. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of the China Global Risk Council. The views expressed herein are entirely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of his employers or their clients, or of any other organizations with which he is associated. He blogs about China, reputation management, and everything else at Off The Record.