The Life-and-Death Responsibility Of Brands

This past week, a friend took his own life. He was talented, interesting and big-hearted – and those words only dwarf the loss of this one-of-a-kind individual. You never know what drives someone to that ultimate choice. But, like many other parents of teens, I can't help but fear the things that, at least in part, drive teens to contemplate it. 

The Statistics of Life and Death

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 1 in 6 teens has contemplated suicide; 1 in 12 has attempted it. Reports vary on whether teen suicide rates are climbing or abating. Whatever the case, even one is too many.

It is narrow-minded to pin the cause on any one thing; teens struggle with sense of self, sexuality, academic pressures, drug and alcohol abuse – you name it. If you think being a teen is easy, really think back for a moment. Then, think again, because teens today live in a different world where the struggles you remember are often compounded and broadcasted.



About 20% of high schoolers said they've been bullied at school, and 16% have been cyberbullied through email, instant messaging, social media or texting. Not surprisingly, the Cyberbullying Research Center says this harassment contributes to depression, decreased self-worth, hopelessness, and loneliness – all of which are precursors to suicidal thoughts and behavior. Facebook and other social media have also been linked to depression, creating a platform for comparing teens' lives to those of others who inevitably seem the better.

The Role of Brands

Make no mistake, parents are the frontline when it comes to the health of their kids. But, I believe brands have a role to play, too. Why? Brands create messages — messages that shape teens' self-perceptions. And, increasingly, brands host communities where teens interact. In short, brands wield power with which comes responsibility. 

Here is how brands can and are being a positive influence to younger generations:

  • Secret's Mean Stinks campaign has gotten a lot of love and been written about here before. Not every brand can or should have such a comprehensive anti-bullying initiative, but many brands can stand against bullying in their own ways.
  • If you host an online community for teens, be attuned to the conversation, listening not just for the things that benefit your brand but to ensure the community is free of teen-on-teen negativity and abuse.
  • Embrace real teens instead of pushing false ideals. Dove's Real Beauty campaign comes to mind first, but many other teen brands have taken similar (though less visible) stances. Seventeen magazine’s move to use “real” models gets my applause.
  • Don't be Abercrombie & Fitch in even the tiniest of ways. Avoid messages, no matter how subtle, that say any teen is not right for your brand. And, as parents, talk to kids about what this kind of nonsense means and encourage them not to patronize the thinking or the brand. 
  • As social media evolves and new platforms emerge, be wary. Even think about what content is being linked to your brand's properties. is particularly scary to me. It's a platform we've had to have serious conversations with our kids about – with good reason: nine teen suicides have been linked to the platform in the past 12 months. 

Social responsibility is defined differently for every brand. But brands can and should be responsible when it comes to our youth. For all their bluster and feigned independence, teens are still kids with egos that are inevitably somewhat fragile.

3 comments about "The Life-and-Death Responsibility Of Brands".
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  1. Stacy Graiko from Firefly Millward Brown, October 31, 2013 at 10:50 a.m.

    Steve, this is such an important topic - thank you for having the courage to write it. I'm sure you will get some pushback from readers that insist media and brands are less influential than parents, peers and mental health, and that the role of marketing content is solely to drive sales...but I think it's an important challenge to all of us to find ways to craft marketing that BOTH drives sales AND raises public well-being. In Bill Clinton's 2012 speech at Cannes he said "the communicators will have a profound influence on how the next 20 or 30 years turns out." This may be the next big challenge for the industry.

  2. Steve Smith from Firehouse, October 31, 2013 at 3:16 p.m.

    Thanks, I very much appreciate your comments. I believe parents and peers are much more influential than brands or communications. That said, it all matters. Brands and communications contribute to an overall ecosystem; I would rather that contribution be one that furthers versus fights public well-being.

  3. Katie North from PR, November 1, 2013 at 4:41 p.m.

    Very sorry for your loss, Steve. It's one of the hardest to come to grips with. When it happens to a child, it's that much harder to bear. Thanks for the post.

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