kNOwMORE, Sexual Violence & Brands

Florida State University College of Motion Pic...

Florida State UniversityPhoto credit: Wikipedia)

Florida State University, which is across the tracks from my own Florida A&M University, has had some serious problems with sexual violence involving students. One response to this has been the creation of a student driven campaign to address the problem with a brand and marketing:


Students developed the “kNOw More” brand to highlight the dual message of Florida State’s no tolerance stance on sexual violence and education efforts focused on prevention. Students also are leading marketing efforts for a campaign, “Ask. Respect. Don’t Expect,” aimed at raising awareness among their peers about obtaining clear consent for sexual activity and bystander intervention to prevent sexual assault or misconduct.

As an ethical person and a university professor, I certainly support efforts to reduce sexual violence on campuses (and anywhere). However, I found the use of the terms “brand” and “marketing efforts” somewhat disconcerting.

The main reason for this is that I associate the term “brand” with things like sodas, snack chips and smart phones rather than with efforts to combat sexual violence in the context of higher education. This sort of association creates, as I see it, some concerns.

The first is that the use of “brand” and “marketing efforts” in the context of sexual violence has the potential to trivialize the matter. Words, as the feminists rightly say, do matter. Speaking in terms of brands and marketing efforts makes it sound like Florida State sees the matter as on par with a new brand of FSU college products that will be promoted by marketing efforts. It would not seem too much to expect that the matter would be treated with more respect in terms of the language used.

The second concern ties back to a piece I wrote in 2011, “The University as a Business.” This essay was written in response to the reaction of Florida A&M University’s president to the tragic death of Florida A&M University student Robert Champion in a suspected hazing incident. The president, who has since resigned, wrote that “preserving the image and the FAMU brand is of paramount importance to me.” The general problem is that thinking of higher education in business terms is a damaging mistake that is harmful to the true mission of higher education, namely education. The specific problem is that addressing terrible things like killing and sexual violence in terms of brands and marketing is morally inappropriate. The brand and marketing view involve the ideas that moral problems are to be addressed in the same manner that one would address a sales decline in chips and this suggests that the problems are mainly a matter of public relations. That is, the creation of an appearance of action rather than effective action.

One obvious reply to my concerns is that terms such as “brand” and “marketing effort” are now the correct terms to use. That is, they are acceptable because of common use and I am thus reading too much into the matter.

On the one hand, that is a reasonable reply—I might be behind the times in terms of the terms. On the other hand, the casual acceptance of business terms in such a context would seem to support my view.

Another reply to my concerns is that the branding and marketing are aimed at addressing the problem of sexual violence and hence my criticism of the terminology is off the mark. This does have some appeal. After all, as people so often say, if the branding and marketing has some positive impact, then that would be good. However, this does not show that my concerns about the terminology and apparent underlying world-view are mistaken.


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  1. “However, this does not show that my concerns about the terminology and apparent underlying world-view are mistaken.”

    … What happened to burden of proof?

  2. In this case, the burden of proof is unclear. So, I’d take it as neutral and that both sides would need to argue for their positions.

  3. Hm. This raises an interesting issue.

    If someone considers something (an action, using words, etc) acceptable, and someone else thinks it is not, where does the burden lie? Is it “anything that’s not forbidden is allowed”, is it “whoever had their way first” (though that’s kinda hard to prove sometimes), “whoever is in the majority/minority”, “whoever is affected” or what else?

    … Also… how do you reply to a specific comment here?

  4. M-ree,

    Using words is a specific type of action, and while it sounds silly to say “majority rules” in questions of ethics, when it comes to language, we have no choice. Words only have meaning when a community agrees on the meaning. I agree with Mike, that these particular words sound more like the college is trivializing the issue than trying to solve it. The best way to find out who is right would be to hire Gallup, but I have a hunch none of us have the resources to do so.

  5. Actually, in my view, “majority rules” does not sound silly at all in matters of ethics.

    It’s just that with words (and not only), it is often the minority that’s affected by them (and sometimes, takes a great liberty in that).

    This particular issue, I personally kinda have a feeling it’s a non-issue because it’s too stretched out. It’s not even about the slogans/brands/words they use, but about how to label these words.

    I can’t help but think of two Russian sayings… “Хоть горшком назови, только в печу не ставь” and “Седьмая вода на киселе”…

  6. This whole thing of “university as a business” has been a disaster, and has been spreading like a disease throughout the world. The point of origin for this particular lethal strain of Educational Ebola being the United States of Murica.

    The purpose of universities up to a few decades ago, was not to provide a branded diploma to consumers. The branding existed for certain institutions; that the holder of a diploma was not a member of socially and economically excluded class. These institutions have now wholeheartedly embraced commercialising their snob value, but they were never conceived as businesses in the first place. Marx’s prophesized that in the end days of capitalism, even things that it were once unimaginable to think of being commercialised, become part of the capitalist commodity system.

    The original intention of these institutions was to benefit society for its’ own sake. Even though today that statement sounds like the claim of the far left, it was once the unanimously held belief among all shades of the right.

    So, either two things are on the horizon; either the end of capitalism, or the incredibly bitter millennials, who have college degrees but the best job they’ve landed since graduating is chief burger tosser at McD’s, tear the institutions and staff apart, brick from brick and limb from limb, for ripping them off.

    We should be entering a golden age for education, the truth is though, it’s never been this bad.

  7. M-ree Bipolar,

    “We are definitely in post-capitalist economy now much like the much heralded post-industrial.”

    It’s not so much post-capitalist, as capitalism changing its’ form. Capitalism can’t reach a steady state plateau, it must expand or completely collapse. So as Marx predicted, you’ll find it entering places where you didn’t expect it.

    “These days, money make money and well… Thin air makes money. Because I can’t bring myself to call better half of that “ideas”.”

    But this is what Marx knew already. Commodity fetishism. That fetishistic element of commodities; the Louis Vuitton label, Levi’s branded jeans, is made of thin air. Capitalism expands itself into psychology manipulation. Children want to go to McDonalds and eat rubbish inferior to what their mother could prepare for them. Because they have been powerfully psychologically manipulated. Adults are just as manipulated and gullible as children. Conspicuous consumption has replaced the conspicuous piety of religion. A good person drives a “good” car and lives in a “good” place, a bad person drives a “bad” car and lives in a “bad” place.

    Religion controls people by keeping them alienated from their authentic needs. And that is what our present form of capitalism does too. Capitalism makes its’ desires your desires.

  8. M-ree,

    While there are standards for burden of proof (initial plausibility, etc.), perhaps the fairest method is to expect arguments from the various sides.

    As I recall, when the matter of having the specific reply option was brought up, that idea was rejected. I don’t actually run the site-I just post here.

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