Helpful hypocrisy? The ‘ironic turn’ in corporate talk about sustainable development

By Sarah Glozer and Mette Morsing

Do you feel uneasy to think that companies use a humorous tone in their communications about grave challenges such as climate change, pollution and inequality? We suggest the notion of helpful hypocrisy to coin this new ironic turn in recent corporate communications.

Ironic campaigns

We have ourselves been intrigued by this new ‘ironic turn’ in corporate communications. Large international fashion brands such as Patagonia, Benetton and Diesel have recently challenged conventional informational approaches to marketing communication about sustainability, choosing instead to incorporate a humorous (or more precisely, an ironic) edge to their visual representations as they address issues of climate change.

Such campaigns are ironic because they bring a twist of message incongruity and ‘double talk’, where they show a world within which ambiguity, incongruity and contradictions are real and leaving it to consumers what to make of it. This stands in sharp contrast to conventional prescriptions in marketing communications where the idea of ‘one message’, or what we refer to as ‘single talk’, prevails with the purpose of targeting consumers effectively. In our recently published paper, we suggest the term ‘helpful hypocrisy’ as a way of coining the ironic turn.

On the one hand, these new ironic messages show consumers the dire consequences of pollution, climate change, flooding and deforestation (i.e. implications of consumption) and on the other hand, they simultaneously carry strong aesthetic appeals to enjoy life and consume more, comforting consumers that ‘life goes on’ and hedonistic lifestyles will continue. In new ‘twisting’ advertising campaigns, companies blend these two narratives in complex, ironic visualization.

Such double talk is often deemed hypocrisy and greenwashing in research as well as in practice. And while we agree with such assessment, our analysis shows that there is also something else going on.

Double talk

We point to how such double talk may also provoke critical reflection and surprise through displaying inconsistencies between ‘talk’ and ‘talk,’ and hereby engage its audiences as more than passive recipients. In a cosmopolitan context, where people like to think that they are able and capable of critically reflect on their own lives and make their own decisions, preaching and moralizing communications about ‘good behavior’ is becoming increasingly less effective.

Youth is particularly opposing being told what to do. And even in spite of the severe consequences of continued consumption, a certain ‘climate change fatigue’ has entered the market. Consumers know that they should buy less and more sustainable products, but they are resistant to messages that give them feelings of guilt and shame.

In such a world, we suggest, one way to gain traction is to engage audiences in ironic and humorous communications in which the receiver is him- and herself activated to interpret incongruous ambiguous messages.

Helpful hypocrisy

Analyzing Diesel’s Global Warming Ready campaign, we find how the technique of irony is particularly outspoken as beautiful people in beautiful clothes are inserted into out-of-place environments, juxtaposing them if you will, by the dire implications of climate change, in a way which makes the whole scenery appear absurd.

In our analysis, we develop an analytical model that positions irony and double talk vis a vis conventional marketing campaigns.

We point to how the blend of climate change and luxury consumption is an ambiguous affair, and we show how incongruity is present across four levels of Diesel’s use of irony: fantasy versus reality (framing), survival versus destruction (signifying), utopia versus dystopia (symbolizing) and political activism versus consumer society (ideologizing).

Without moralizing or telling consumers what to do, or even restraining from telling consumers how good the corporate sustainable activities are, Diesel exposes the ambiguities of society and sustainability by using humor.

Now, we are not fooling ourselves. Diesel is a company with an ambition of selling more products. And where satire is a technique that intends to improve humanity by critiquing its ‘follies and foibles’, companies are generally known to have less noble ambitions.

But we argue – with Swedish sociologist Nils Brunsson – that “hypocrisy appears to be exactly what we demand of modern organizations: if we expose organizations to conflicting demands and norms, and expect that they should respond to them, then we must also expect hypocrisy” (1993: 8-9).

We propose that irony may be considered a means of ‘helpful hypocrisy’ in which the public is exposed to the contradictions and vices of society with the purpose of changing people’s opinion and create betterment of society.


Brunsson, N. (1989). The Organization of Hypocrisy: Talk, Decisions and Actions in Organizations. Wiley.

Glozer, S. and Morsing, M. (2019). Helpful hypocrisy? Investigating ‘double-talk’ and irony in CSR marketing communications, Journal of Business Research

About the authors

Sarah Glozer is Associate Professor of Marketing and Society in the School of Management at the University of Bath, UK. She is also Deputy Director of the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society (CBOS). Her research focuses on corporate social responsibility (CSR) communication, digital marketing and ethical markets/consumption.

Mette Morsing is Professor and Mistra Chair of Sustainable Markets at Stockholm School of Economics (Sweden) and Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility at Copenhagen Business School (Denmark). Her research concerns how organizations govern and are governed in the context of sustainability. She is particularly interested in how communication, identity and image dynamics work in this regard.

The image is one of the eight images displayed in Glozer & Morsing (2019) from the Diesel Global Warming Ready campaign: New York City submerged in water

Temporal Dimensions of Hypocrisy

By Lars Thøger Christensen.

Hypocrisy is a serious charge for social actors, especially organizations and politicians, whose profession depends on perceptions of sincerity and credibility. To call someone a hypocrite is to challenge his or her moral integrity and to indicate that the object of the accusation cannot be trusted. In spite of their seriousness, however, hypocrisy charges are frequent occurrences in public debate. Whereas the notion of hypocrisy used to refer specifically to the practice of engaging in the very same immoral behavior for which one castigates other actors, today it is likely to be mobilized whenever gaps, imbalances or disparities between one set of activities and another can be observed and claimed. Hypocrisy, in other words, has become an expansive arena.

Hypocrisy charges have become dissociated from moral preaching and refer today more broadly to perceived inconsistencies between talk and action.

For organizations, such inconsistencies are countless. This is especially the case when their talk concerns complex activities that extend far beyond the immediate present and involve dimensions of the organization’s past and future. Organizations, for example, are often accused by stakeholders for inconsistencies between their current ideals and their former practices. Similarly, stakeholders frequently reject future-oriented goals with reference to present-day activities. Since hypocrisy charges can be damaging to one’s reputation, however, organizations are likely to counter such challenges by reasserting some sort of consistency between their past, present and future. While such endeavours tend to attract criticism, they are quite common practices in contemporary organizations.

Influenced by an expanded understanding of hypocrisy, many organizations are engaged in practices of consistency management.

Instead of admitting the existence of inconsistencies, disjunctures or dilemmas among different dimensions of their practices, organizations engage in “communicative acrobatics” in order to navigate in the unruly waters of their past, their present and their future. Examples of such acrobatics are aspiration, deferment, evasion and re-narration.

Aspiration denotes organizational ambitions camouflaged as accurate self-descriptions. While aspirations might come across as more credible if they were presented as future-oriented goals, the combined desire to improve the organization’s reputational standing and motivate internal audiences towards better practices implies that such self-descriptions tend to be formulated as if they reflect already existing practices.

Deferment refers to delays, extensions or suspensions of organizational action towards better futures. While such delays may be accepted in some contexts, they are likely to be met with suspicion when they involve responsible or sustainable practices. Organizations that find themselves behind schedule or not yet able to evidence the results of their initiatives, must therefore engage vigorously in justifications.

Evasion describes organizational attempts to bypass, neglect or otherwise distance themselves from dubious or irresponsible decisions and behaviors of their past. Since the past is frequently evoked by critics to dismiss the credibility of current organizational goals and visions and to support charges of hypocrisy, it is crucial for many organizations to stress that what used to be common practice has been terminated long time ago.

Re-narration refers to attempts by organizations to mobilize and reedit their past in self-flattery ways. As a particular practice aimed at retroactively editing the past in the interest of the present and the future, re-narration involves selecting and rearranging specific events and symbols of the past into an idealized picture that can be used as a resource to guide and justify current practices and future goals.

These are just a few examples of organizational attempts to bypass hypocrisy charges in the shape of inconsistencies or tensions between their past, their present and their future. Interestingly, such attempts tend to reproduce hypocrisy in new forms – forms, which are just as likely to attract attention and criticism. As such, hypocrisy has potential to do something to organizations and society over time.

The combination of hypocrisy and stakeholder criticism has performative potential.

Many aspirations, for example, are hypocritical because they exaggerate organizational abilities and accomplishments. At the same time, they have performative potential to the extent that they mobilize employees and NGOs to demand better practices. Also, aspirations may inspire similar aspirations among competitors such that they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Similarly, while deferment practices may relieve the organization from immediate pressure to do exactly as they say, they simultaneously indicate that organizations are sensitive to their social standing and hold on to their future-directed ideals and goals.

Such sensitivity might be used by stakeholders to demand further explanations and updated timeframes. By holding on to long-term-ideals and goals, even when they are difficult to implement in full, organizations seem to acknowledge what is right and what they ought to do. Similarly, even if evasion may be a tempting way out for organizations when facing negative publicity about their past, such practice indicates that organizational actors are aware that certain practices no longer are acceptable.
Finally, the fact that many corporations seek to re-narrate their past indicates some awareness that change is called for and that organizational endeavors are being vigilantly observed by others.

Without hypocrisy, organizations may relieve themselves from pressures to become better.

None of this is to suggest that hypocrisy automatically generates better practices. Rather, it is a call to investigate further how hypocrisy in the shape of inconsistencies can be mobilized to perform in the interest of society.

Suggestions for further readings

Brunsson, N. (2003). Organized hypocrisy. In B. Czarniawska & G. Sevón G. (Eds), The Northern lights – organization theory in Scandinavia (pp. 201-222). Copenhagen: Copenhagen Business School Press.

Cho, C. H., Laine, M., Roberts, R. W., & Rodrigue, M. (2015). Organized hypocrisy, organizational façades, and sustainability reporting. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 40, 78-94.

Christensen, L.T., Morsing, M., & Thyssen, O. (2013). CSR as aspirational talk. Organization, 20(3), 372-393.

Haack, P., Schoeneborn. D., & Wickert, C. (2012). Talking the talk, moral entrapment, creeping commitment? Exploring narrative dynamics in corporate responsibility standardization. Organization Studies, 33(5-6), 815-845.

About the Author

Lars Thøger Christensen is Professor of Communication and Organization at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark.

By the same author: License to Critique: Inoculating Standards against Closure.

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash.