Media Studies alumna wins National Business Book Award

FIMS alumna Andrea Benoit (PhD’14, Media Studies) is the winner of the 2020 National Business Book Award for her 2019 publication VIVA M·A·C: AIDS, Fashion, and the Philanthropic Practices of M·A·C Cosmetics. The announcement was made on the National Business Book Award website on November 18, 2020. The winner was determined by a panel led by former CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge, and other finalists on the shortlist included prominent Canadian business personality Arlene Dickinson, Rotman School of Management professor Wendy Dobson and former union organizer John Stefanini.

As described in the press release, “With in-depth research, analysis, and exceptional writing, Benoit explains how the inclusive corporate social responsibility efforts of Canadian cosmetics company, MˑAˑC (Make-up Art Cosmetics), emerged from authentic cultural practices. Published by University of Toronto Press, the book recounts one of Canada’s great business success stories and its corporate philanthropy around HIV/AIDS in the 1980s when the fashion and cultural industries were undergoing a dynamic revitalization. She explores MˑAˑC’s business history through a cultural lens to offer a new understanding of how corporations effectively align with social causes.”

Benoit, who completed her PhD in 2014 under the supervision of Professor Daniel Robinson, first began her work on this subject through her doctoral thesis. Titled Face Value: Beyond the Surface of Brand Philanthropy and the Cultural Production of the M.A.C AIDS Fund, Benoit says her thesis provided the foundation for her eventual book. Her early doctoral research into the ways in which promotional culture intersected with social causes in the form of cause-related marketing that arose in the 1990s led her to realize that the M·A·C AIDS Fund story was conspicuously missing.

“As I was exploring different examples of cause marketing campaigns, many very successful on a global scale, I was surprised that no one mentioned M·A·C Cosmetics or the M·A·C AIDS Fund. Since M·A·C Cosmetics is one of Canada’s great success stories, I had expected that its HIV/AIDS philanthropy through the VIVA GLAM initiative was well-known,” she explains.

“However, relatively few people were familiar with it, and there were no detailed, methodical treatments of M·A·C’s business history, nor critical scholarly inquiries into the advent of the M·A·C AIDS Fund, or even its remarkable VIVA GLAM advertising featuring the (then mostly unknown) drag performer RuPaul and Canadian singer k. d. lang, in any of the literature.”

Further investigation led Benoit to realize that the M·A·C story differed from many of the other examples of cause-related marketing she had been examining. While other corporations shied away from the stigma of being associated with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, M·A·C’s “creativity and its unique cultural practices within the field of fashion produced a distinctive style of corporate social responsibility that really resonated with its customers, and cemented M·A·C’s brand identity and corporate ethos,” says Benoit.

Along with the archival research generated from her thesis, Benoit later conducted approximately 20 interviews with people in the fashion and media industries, including M·A·C co-founder Frank Toskan, and executives at M·A·C and Estée Lauder, to fill in the answers to remaining questions and round out her award-winning story. She found out she had been shortlisted for the award in August.

Benoit, who currently holds an administrative position overseeing the academic review process for the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Toronto, has preliminary plans in mind for her next writing project. She would like to continue exploring how branding and marketing are not only rational, business activities, but also cultural ones, in a more wide-ranging book on the subject from a media and cultural studies viewpoint that incorporates the experiences of marketers who are genuinely seeking social change.

Read more about VIVA M·A·C: AIDS, Fashion, and the Philanthropic Practices of M·A·C Cosmetics on the University of Toronto Press website.