How Brands And Personal Responsibility Are Trumping Politics

Is being a good consumer more important than voting in people’s calculations of what makes them good citizens? If you’ve lost almost all faith in government, the answer is yes.

How Brands And Personal Responsibility Are Trumping Politics
Pattern via Sutterstock

We don’t need a survey to tell us that Americans have largely lost faith in the political system. But according to a study from global communications group Havas Worldwide, that political apathy extends across the globe. Increasingly, people are filling the hole where their faith in government used to be (or maybe never was) with social media, a respect for good citizenship, and socially-minded businesses.


Havas’s Communities and Citizenship study surveyed 10,219 respondents ages 18 to over 55 in countries around the world, including Argentina, Colombia, France, India, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. The results indicate that most people distrust national and local governments, while nearly half distrust organized religion and news media. By far the most trusted type of institution in the survey is nonprofit organizations. Prosumers–defined by Havas as “the men and women who are influencing markets all over the globe”–trust all institutions a little bit more, but not by much.

At the same time, people (especially prosumers) are starting to believe that they may have more influence as consumers than voters. Today, behaving ethically and responsibly, being self-sufficient, and being a responsible consumer are all considered better signs of good citizenship than voting in elections, paying a fair share of taxes, and donating time and money to politics.

This isn’t so cut and dry in all countries. In India, for example, 55% of respondents believe that voting is the top sign of good citizenship. But in most places, personal responsibility is picking up where politics leaves off.

Social media is driving this notion that personal citizenship matters, especially among prosumers (57% say social media has them more influential/powerful) and people ages 18 to 34 (49% believe that statement). It seems that both young people and prosumers are more jaded about social media’s world-changing potential–however, 33% of prosumers say they use social media to change the world for the better and 31% of 18 to 34 year olds agree with the statement. But 35% of people ages 35 to 54 agree with it, as does 34% of the over 55 crowd.

Interestingly enough, respondents in emerging markets agree with the statement “Social media gives ordinary people an extraordinary ability to influence others and create personal change” at a much higher rate (68%) than respondents in developed markets (49%). A further breakdown can be seen in the infographic. As Havas notes in its report, “In places where control has traditionally been in the hands of the few, social media may well offer the single most important pathway to power.”

Prosumers overwhelmingly believe in the ethical obligations of corporations, including their responsibility for driving social change, making the world a better place, working on climate change issues and other major problems, and working with governments. The majority of mainstream respondents (shown above in the pink bars) believe in all that too, but prosumers (shown above in the white bars) really tip the scales on certain issues. For example, 80% of prosumers and 65% of mainstream respondents believe that businesses bear as much responsibility as governments for driving positive social change. This probably isn’t because people believe that corporations are inherently better than governments (Occupy Wall Street confirmed as much). It’s more likely that respondents just don’t believe that governments have as much power as businesses to make change.


At the end of its report, Havas offers some tips to businesses that want to make use of the survey’s findings. Among them: play a larger role in local communities, find good NGO or government partners, make people feel good about their buying choices (a la Toms Shoes and Carrotmob), be open to social media, and address the gap between rich and poor (i.e. Whole Foods makes sure that executives never make over 19 times the average employee’s compensation). Remember: for now, at least, people may believe more in your business than they do in all levels of government.

See the whole infographic below (click to zoom):

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.