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Brand Name Science

Sep. 17, 2014 by | Comments (1)

“Next time you catch a taxi, and you’re talking about your day,” said my old boss. “Tell them our story. Tell them about how we developed the polymer bank notes, or about our role in developing wi-fi. Tell them about the exciting research we’re doing in astronomy, or in healthcare.”

The intention was for us to play our role in advertising the relevance of this prominent Australian research organisation to the average person, of course. Market research indicated that in spite of being relatively well known as far as Australian science research went, brand recognition was underwhelming in some key demographics. Primarily among the younger generations. Sharing our organisation’s stories with random strangers was a personal way we employees could all do our bit.

If we were selling merchandise in a free market, advertising a brand would be par for the course. Selling science, however, isn’t quite the same thing, is it?

There is an altruism that expects people should simply appreciate what science does for them. But the consequences of failing to make an impression in the public’s consciousness are far more severe than a decline in sales—they mean a loss of funding for research that not only benefits us, but can save lives.

For those who have just returned from the far side of the Moon, the world has recently been divided neatly into two camps; people who dump ice water over their heads, and their critics. The intention of the ice-dumpers is that nebulous slogan, ‘to raise awareness’—in this case, public awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The term ‘awareness’ is a rather gentle euphemism for what amounts to marketing a brand. Yet while we’ve grown accustomed to the idea of market competition in a post-industrial, capitalist economy, the concept of research organisations competing for public attention in the same way seems to elicit a sense of discomfort. Telling people to choose a Whopper over a Big Mac is OK for burgers. When it comes to funding scientific research, nobody wants to think there are winners and losers.

Instead, the goal of fundraising campaigns is sold as building awareness. We sanitise the marketing, associating it with an educational goal rather than purely a market branding one. Yet in the end, whether you’re wearing jeans for genes, a ribbon for domestic abuse, or dumping ice water on your head, the action has little value until the funding comes in.

Cynicism comes easily, especially when participants in awareness campaigns fail to contribute to the actual fundraising part. Is derision justified from a marketing angle, though? Few would argue it’s unfair to sing a jingle if you don’t buy the product. Who cares if I jump and yell ‘Oh what a feeling!’ if I actually drive a Holden? For the brand, it’s all contributing to the public pressure on where to spend those precious dollars.

There is, of course, an ethical argument of presenting oneself as a supporter in name only, especially when the prize is self-promotion. Yet in terms of selling a brand, the zeitgeist created by millions of participants—regardless of their dollar contribution—has resulted in priceless marketing, with reports that the US based ALS Association received nearly $42 million in just three weeks. This isn’t counting contributions to other association organisations, such as the British Motor Neurone Disease Association.

Another counter argument is that there is a limited charity pool—big dollars for one charity means fewer for others. Research into diseases such as lung cancer and obesity face an uphill battle when it comes to fundraising, given how they are negatively associated with life decisions. Yet in reality, options are based in either socialist terms through government regulation and donation, or through competing for that finite share of charity. While there is good reason to view competition for funding as a legitimate concern, it only further demonstrates the necessity of research organisations marketing their brand.

Perhaps the most unique, and indeed nefarious, ethical element of the so-called Ice Bucket Challenge has been the ‘challenge’ element itself. Following completion of the act, the participant invites other individuals by name to engage. On one hand, it could be a significant reason behind the campaign’s success. On the other, there is much to be explored on the ethics of using such social forces to persuade charitable actions. Guilt is no trivial emotion—whether it’s the reluctance to take that free cup of coffee rather than paying it forward, or discomfort at holding onto your change as you pass the pan handler outside the fast food restaurant.

The dissonance comes when we are forced to no longer see charity as charitable. Critics of the challenge have gone so far as to disseminate false information on how the funding is spent.

Seeing science research compete for funding and public attention is a little like seeing your friends vie for the attention of the same love-interest. On August 28, it was reported on the blog Boing Boing that an attorney had noticed the ALS Association had filed to trademark the challenge. While it has since been withdrawn, it’s not hard to see where the impetus to control such lucrative branding comes from. Companies pay through the nose for lucrative branding in order to maintain the public’s awareness of their product. When faced with choosing between questionable morals and succeeding in your organisation’s goal of finding treatment or a cure, or simply doing good science, there is no definitive logical solution.

I never did tell get around to telling any taxi drivers about my job, or my old organisation’s history of discovery. Part of me was never all that comfortable with the thought of being an after-hours advertisement. Given the massive cuts to their budget, perhaps I should have.

Mike McRae

Mike McRae is an Australian science writer and teacher. He has worked for the CSIRO’s education group and developed resources for the Australian government, promoting critical thinking and science education through educational publications. His 2011 book Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs and Bad Ideas explored humanity’s development to think scientifically—and pseudoscientifically—about the universe. Read Mike’s other posts on this blog.

One response to “Brand Name Science”

  1. Alex says:

    The squeaky wheel gets the grease!

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