Unilever’s Project Sunlight: PR & Cognitive Dissonance by @elizabethethird

(Cross-posted from Elizabeth the Third)

As most narratives do, it starts with a question. Luckily, we only have to wait about four minutes to find out the answer. But if we are astute and attuned enough, whether consciously or not, we already know the answer.

I cannot watch this advert without crying; mainly because the song they’ve used, a piano cover of The Pixies’ Where is My Mind (that I suspect they used science to engineer for emotional assassination) holds particular significance for me. Were this an advert for Cillit Bang Brought to You by Barry Scott, I would still have to bite back tears each time the opening was forced upon me via the YouTube videos I intend to watch. Quite apart from this historical broker between that music and my tearducts, this advert works. Very well, and on several levels.


The programmed sadness felt at seeing the opening images of global conflict reflecting the slogan “Why bring a child into this world?” is matched only by the cognitive dissonance that this produces; sadness meeting the typhoon of anger, frustration and desperation created by “Project Sunlight.”


Why bring a child into this world?  Because, Unilever.


Here is Project Sunlight’s ‘message’, delivered with gravitas by its earnest narrator:


Maybe there’s something you should know about the world in which your child will live.

Something real.

Something that’s already happening.

Every day, more and more food is being grown with a revolutionary new method: care.

And new technologies will make clean drinking water available to hundreds of millions.

So this will probably be the famous water wall they speak so much about.

And illnesses that today affect millions of children a year will be prevented with simple, everyday products.

Your child could have more possibilities of having a healthier heart than any living person today.

And the same chance of a broken heart. No one can escape that.

But we have no doubt about one this: they’ll always have a tree in which to hide and cry.

And by the time they find the right person, our children will have better chances of meeting their great-grandchildren than we ever did.

Breathe calmly. Bring your child into this world.

There has never been a better time to create a bright future for everyone on the planet.

For those yet to come.


In text it looks bland and unconvincing, but to music, and over images of pregnant women and crying fathers, thirsty children and war, the mind and soul are wrung out to exhaustion. It’s enough to make you want to forget it all with a cup of PG Tips or some Hellman’s mayonnaise, safe in the knowledge that “something’s already happening” (and your money contributed to it. You’re part of the solution, the wise-choice-making legion.)


My immediate response before the Skip Ad button was cynicism, and so I didn’t watch the advert until after about a week of them trying to shove it down my senses. But once I’d seen it through (thinking perhaps it might spur a good article,) a sense of guilt formed. The best of humanity; curiosity, hope, need, striving; has been so skillfully employed that the philosophical quandary (that I’m going to call the Bernays Mind Fondle) becomes almost unrecognizable. How can we criticize a company that gives us hope, that wants a better future for our children, that is optimistic, that engages with everything that WE want?


The message Unilever has co-opted – that we all play a part in changing the present and thus the future for our fellow beings – is undeniable. It is something that I often shove into others’ senses during heated discussion; what, for example, is the good of revolutionising our society or overthrowing our governments if we can’t acknowledge and understand our own basic dynamics, our abusive and corrupt relationships with each other? Each one of us needs to make better choices at an individual level. (Where, exactly, is the most complex and worthwhile part.)


The point remains. And those tricksy bastards have utilized the daylights out of it. I’m certain that they believe themselves, that they honestly buy their own message. Maybe that is really all they see, maybe there isn’t a fat, rich Unilever CEO cackling within an editing suite that looks like the Crystal Maze’s Crystal Dome, full of red, glinting fifties dancing around him. Maybe.


What information does Unilever give us to back up their claim of “no doubt that we’ll always have trees to hide and cry in?” That technology will be able to manufacture an abundance of the clean water we are running out of? What do Unilever have to say about increasing economic inequality and environmental destruction and intrinsical global corporate crime? What exactly is their five-year-plan for tackling these threats to our present and future?


Unilever isn’t inspiring hope and change, it’s selling us Unilever products, all of which can be found on the Project Sunlight page with blurb on how each Walls’ ice cream is stemming the tide of poverty and each spread of Flora decreasing the use of rape as a weapon of war. Every corporation is obliged to make a profit for its shareholders. Before anyone else’s well being, including that of its shareholders and its shareholders’ potentially thirsty, poverty-stricken grandchildren, it is required to make some people some money this quarter.


The site displays a counter of over 50 million ‘Acts of Sunlight’ performed to date. What are these wonderful acts that will bolster life for our children’s children’s children’s children? It’s the tweets what people’ve twotten, tagging #brightfuture and #projectsunlight…including one from Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. While promoting the Project she wears @LoreeRodkin jewellery and #captoepodium pumps.


For how long can well chosen music and PR strategy fool us into believing that ‘everything will be alright’ as long as we understand that Unilever and its counterparts know best? That we just need to get it into our stressed-out minds that we can trust them and we should leave it up to the well-intending, green-washed corporations to take the lead on all global decisions and power play? It’s a diversion that has worked pretty well so far. We, of course, need to take action, be more responsible for what we do, and make significant, radical changes to protect and prevent and build something new. But we each need to engage in this in our own relevant but personal way, always remembering that the personal is political. Real change can’t be achieved by the likes of Project Sunlight, so the sooner we galvanise our alternative projects, the better.


Elizabeth The Third Articles by elizabeththethird about the politics of the media. Often feminist readings of culture and communication, but also general reflections and critiques on the workings of our cultural landscape. Follow @elizabethethird