Industrial and Institutional Change in Brand Environments

Curator's Note

The industrial and institutional group discussed the changing structural dynamics within an “Anglo-American style of promotional culture” (Aeron Davis). Our discussion raised concerns around whose interests are promoted and, consequently, given legitimacy within a promotional culture. In fact, the notion that brands and promotional culture have the ability to build or change the legitimacy of traditional institutions has become taken for granted so that, regardless of whether promotion actually works, it is believed to work and this has a critical social impact. 

One area of change discussed was the increasing role of promotional intermediaries such as consultants (PR, marketing, economists) within political contexts. As more public institutions turn to consultants, these promotional intermediaries hold the power to direct public conversations. 

The United Negro College Fund’s (UNCF) recent multimedia campaign offers an example of the subtle (and overt) ways that promotional intermediaries are able to direct public issues, such as racism and unequal access to higher education, into promotional issues tied to production-consumption circuits. The latest campaign, Better Futures, takes UNCF’s historic slogan, “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” and adds “but a Wonderful Thing to Invest In.”  The stories of Sydni, Queen, Justin, David, and Jacquez all conclude with the assertion, “and I am your dividend.” 

Here, investment in education is equated to stock market returns for corporate investors. The campaign was constructed through a series of partnerships with promotional intermediaries including the private non-profit, the Ad Council, the pro bono creative of the adverting agency, Young and Rubicom (Y&R), and economist consultants.  Economist consultants operated as promoters used to develop "an algorithm to show the social return of donating just $10 to UNCF, including the impact on earnings, crime savings and health savings” ( 

While the campaign grabs attention and may increase donations for a serious social issue, concerns remain as to whose interests are truly being promoted, those of Sydni, Queen, Justin, David, and Jacquez or those of promotional culture?

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