When corporations co-opt social justice, who pays?

Can corporations be purveyors of social justice? They’re certainly trying hard.

Reddit CEO Ellen Pao announced recently that she had found a simple solution to “eliminate the gender pay gap”: do away with new-hire pay negotiations altogether. Wow. Forget the fact that her rationale implicitly undercuts the idea of gender equality (Pao reasoned that because women are “naturally less aggressive” than men, they are less likely to ask for higher starting salaries). The real head-scratcher is her attempt to sell economic injustice in the name of social justice. 

Even more troubling is the fact that she’s not alone: Across the country, corporations regularly use social justice issues as a platform to justify their market decisions.

Nestle Chair and former CEO, Peter Brabeck, recently told The Guardian that he thinks “the way we think about water needs to change.” Brabeck says he has become a “convert to the cause of water stewardship” and believes that water scarcity is “the biggest threat facing humanity.” That, apparently, is why he wants to continue making deals with state governments to get private access to public water. Nevermind that he gets to sell the water at 99% markup; it’s all in the name of “conscientiousness.”

And then there’s the unfortunate Starbucks’s #RaceTogether hashtag, an idea that probably sounded great in the boardroom but was destined to be a massive flop in practice. The exercise proved to be an exercise in social awareness that demonstrated just how socially unaware massive corporations tend to be.

All of these ham-handed attempts to capitalize on our desire to purchase our justice leads one to wonder: What’s next? McDonald’s rainbow-colored, Gay Marriage Fries? Taco Bell issuing Immigration Reform Chalupas?

This is the height of offensiveness: appealing to populist frustration over real issues — things that people actually care about and want to change — in order to sell bad food and bottled water. After all, these campaigns are nothing more than earned media for the corporations running them. They are meant to engender good will from the public, and therefore, to sell lattes and hamburgers — not spark discourse or inspire activism.

Of course, big businesses only engage in these sorts of gimmicks because they work, which makes them as much the American consumer’s fault as anyone else’s. As Slavoj Zizek points out, we are given chances to meld our values with our materials through what he terms “cultural capitalism:”

Note how Starbucks is one of Zizek’s biggest foils: “You are buying more than a cup of coffee; you’re buying a coffee ethics.” We choose to buy our coffee at Starbucks because we share Starbucks’s values (and they’re freaking everywhere); we’re a better person for having chosen Starbucks over Dunkin Donuts.

Meanwhile, as corporations trot out these media ploys to convince average Americans that they “care,” most of them are engaging in untold damage to the economic and ecological infrastructures in America and the world. Starbucks, the king of predatory expansionist practices, has a legacy of undercutting competitors and crushing small business. Nestle is implicated in some of the worst environmental scandals in the world. And Ellen Pao’s cynical “wage gap” ploy is merely a means of justifying the reduction of worker rights.

Public Relations, via PR / Flickr

Public Relations, via PR / Flickr

What I find most disturbing, however, is that the consumer is now beset not only by the frenetic advertising bombardments that structure our every waking hour, but also by weird PSAs about treating each other better and being kind. It has all of the weird dystopian corporate paternalism that one might expect to find in a Philip K. Dick novel, or a Paul Verhoeven film. This paternalism is creepy not only because it represents a shift in the relationship between big business and the public, but because it shows a significant merging of big business, government and public discourse. The dissolving boundaries between corporate, political and media organizations in the U.S. have given ample opportunity for corporations to assume postures and activities that government used to be solely responsible for. They do the job of “reaching out” to the masses through public relations campaigns in attempts to participate and, in some senses, shape the national political and cultural discourse. Of course, beneath these campaigns there lies nothing but self-interest and marketing strategies.

All this is to say that when we outsource our social justice to the private sector, we tacitly endorse all of the massive injustices that those same companies are engaging in to serve the same motive that sparked their interest in making value based appeals: profit.


Lucas Ropek is a journalist based in Massachusetts. He worked for the Working Families Party in NYC on issues of income inequality and worker rights. His interests include U.S. foreign policy, pop-culture, and freedom fries.

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  • Bill_Perdue

    I like them all.

  • Indigo

    Corporations express themselves in two ways, 1. their treatment of their workers and 2, the latest in social sloganeering that can be fit into their corporate image. # 1 expresses their true feelings, # 2 expresses their contempt for the public by unscrupulously manipulative advertising. In other words, no, I don’t believe their social justice pose because it’s not about social justice, it’s about softening their image. The only believable softening of image is their treatment of their employees. Underpaid women, low minimum wage? Those are expressions of profound indifference to social justice.

  • Indigo

    I prefer the Internationale in English
    (ironically introduced by a solidly capitalist advertisement):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk69e1Vcmvg

  • “What’s next? McDonald’s rainbow-colored, Gay Marriage Fries?”

    http://time.com/2947156/burger-king-debuts-gay-pride-whopper/

    And that was last year.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Fortunately, right wingers (Democrats and Republicans) have no ability to understand, much less influence the course of events.

    BTW, you missed something: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwbe4hRdwGg

    Oh, we did learn to sing in tune, no that that makes any difference.

    Next time, maybe you can manage to make a political comment. Or not.

  • emjayay

    Fortunately, the internal contradictions of capitalism will inevitably lead to its collapse by 1900 at least, leading to a dictatorship of the proletariat.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Capitalist corporations all use a strategy of divide and rule, promoting and using racism, misogyny and anti-gay prejudice.

    Capitalist enterprises, and the courts, governments and political parties who support them, Democrats and Republicans, are the enemies of working people. Their civil rights laws are toothless and when new laws like ENDA are proposed they gut them and only pass them when they have no chances of becoming law.

    Democrats and Republicans will never do anything effective to undercut the divide and rule strategy of the rich. A workers state with a socialistic leadership will.

  • emjayay

    Now that I watched the video (uh-oh, those people have lots more videos of various kinds…). What Zizek didn’t get in is that people have always made consumer decisions for complex reasons, in many cases to a smaller or larger degree the identification with the company and/or product.

    Ford people liked and bought Fords and Chevy people liked and bought Chevys for complicated reasons not necessarily very connected with the fairly similar cars. This lingers on more in the pickup truck world. The eco stuff is another chapter in the story. Actual utility may be mixed in: those comfortable chairs included with the expensive cup of free trade coffee are, well, comfortable, and in a pleasant place that isn’t your apartment and has other humans around to look at etc.

  • emjayay

    That’s some good fallout of what I described below. Good point.

  • Hue-Man

    “An enlightened approach to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is good for the bottom line, but it’s also the right thing to do, says TD Bank CEO Ed Clark.” http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/td-bank-ceo-ed-clark-on-embracing-lgbt-issues-1.2688932

    TD has also walked the walk. They’re the first “partner” on the Vancouver Pride website. http://vancouverpride.ca/partners/ I don’t know what it’s like on the inside but TD’s “LGBTA” report doesn’t shy away from listing their accomplishments. http://www.td.com/document/PDF/corporateresponsibility/Engilsh%20online%20LGBTA%20report.pdf

    I understand what you’re saying about corporate motivations. At the same time, I would prefer to do business with an organization that wants my business. If they are only paying lip-service to the LGBT community, it’ll be obvious pretty quickly when you deal with their front-line people. I would also prefer to have their moral and financial support than have them support the gay-haters like some well-known companies have done. Last point, the profit motive has brought many companies out of the woodwork to lobby against anti-gay legislation proposed/enacted by Arizona, Indiana, etc.

  • emjayay

    You have to always remember that a private enterprise has only one goal: maximizing profit. Plus today, if the CEO and friends have stock options, running up the stock price. Ask Adam Smith. This is how free enterprise capitalism works and always has. This is not a value judgment, just a fact.

    It’s not always just about cutting costs. For example, when they advertise that they no longer use foam containers but only recycled and recyclable cardboard ones, that may cost them more money directly. But the aim is to improve their image, get more customers, and maximize profit. Fast food again – when you see a windmill next to a McDonalds, that may actually make their energy expense higher. But once again….

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  • I continue to find the argument that “women just don’t ask for as much money as men” unconvincing. It might account for some income disparities, but certainly not all. This practice has been illegal for almost 50 years now. Why has closing the gap proven so difficult? In fact, since for over 20 years now there have been more women than men in college, shouldn’t we be seeing stories in which there are more women earning higher salaries than men? This is not as simple as those wishing to dismiss the problem want us to believe. It’s a core sexism that has to be confronted head-on in order to change.

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