How corporate brands reluctantly became our moral guides -

How corporate brands reluctantly became our moral guides

The free market is typically agnostic and can’t wait until it can get back to business

Marchers at a white-supremacy rally encircle counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017. (Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Marchers at a white-supremacy rally encircle counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017. (Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In the Faustian bargain of the internet, the price we’ve paid has been to learn just how fractious we really are. Nobody misses, or will confess to missing, the days of corporate-controlled media oligopolies, but you have to admit they did a good job of simulating social harmony.

The once reasoned, progressive editorial voice of the mainstream news made people with extreme views seem like outliers, and that tended to shut them up. It may have been an illusion, but it was a congenial one. Now, the truth assaults us at every turn: raise any issue of even passing social significance, and watch the internet split us down the middle and degenerate into snark and acrimony.

No news there. Nor, obviously, is the fact that everyone can now have a voice a bad thing. Free speech is inarguably the bedrock of democracy, and it has never been freer than it is now. It’s just that it’s also never been more terrible to behold.

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Our faith in this cornerstone of civilization is tested daily, it seems, by bigoted pronouncements from anyone who can get their hands on a microphone or a keyboard, and by images of angry, swastika-festooned men carrying tiki torches. This most enlightened ideal has become an existential threat to enlightenment itself. Chaos, we fear, can’t be far behind.

It’s understandable, therefore, that we’d throw ourselves at a powerful saviour, however improbable. And brands as the voices of moral leadership are about as improbable as it gets. Yet, there they are, beacons of rectitude: CEOs quitting presidential advisory councils, web titans like Google and GoDaddy kicking neo-Nazi web sites like the Daily Storm off their hosting services, social media platforms like Facebook silencing extremists, hawkers of everything from coffee to luxury sedans and even tiki torches preaching tolerance and compassion. And in this unreasonable age, it almost makes sense. Free market capitalism is, after all, an essentially agnostic concept.

What makes us suspicious of it in more harmonious times makes it feel like the only thing we can trust when politics contaminates every other corner of modern life.  And that’s probably true, as far as it goes. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about a branded corporation taking a stand for something you believe in. But what we can’t do is assume such stands will always be morally motivated, or that those brands will always do what we think is the right thing, or even that they have anything more than the most basic duty to defend civil society.

As vindicating as this moment may seem for the progressives among us, brands have not decided to shoulder our collective moral responsibilities for us. In fact, they probably can’t wait until all this is over.

The heart of this argument is simple arithmetic: Consumers and citizens, despite the labels, are the same creatures, and no less divided when they go to the mall than they are online or at the polls. So, if a business relies on a brand to make money, the risk in any ‘moral’ position it takes on a social issue is exactly in proportion to the number of people who might take the opposite view. If that brand has a particular affinity for one end of the political spectrum, corporate activism might still be good business. But if a brand is big and ubiquitous, a CEO puts her enterprise at risk by engaging at all, something for which no-one will thank her if the result is a decimated stock price and shuttered factories.

That’s what makes this moment so exceptional, especially for the tech brands that live in the eye of the free speech hurricane. Their communities, their investors, their workforces and the media who cover them are all likely to cheer them on for muzzling those people marching with torches, but not all of their customers necessarily will.

It’s an impossible dilemma, and proof that we can’t ever delegate big moral questions to the people who sell us things. Brands can’t be our consciences. Besides, nobody really wants every purchase decision to be a political statement anyway. Sometimes, people just want a hamburger. And sometimes, the best thing a corporation can do for the cause of civility is to simply make them one.



How corporate brands reluctantly became our moral guides

  1. “Free market capitalism is, after all, an essentially agnostic concept.” – give your head a shake! Free market capitalism is one alternative to royal privilege. Royal charters where entities were granted a monopoly position and were able to operate with impunity, one might say abusively towards their employees, suppliers and customers, but also able to be put out of business at the stroke of a pen; of course, similar arrangements are possible in non-imperial systems as we have seen even in socialist systems and even nominal democracies where politicians convey advantage to certain operators and, of course, use tariffs to convey advantage to selected operators. The notion of ‘free market’ is merely an ideal and note reality. Free market capitalism is not agnostic, it merely espouses virtues that are not biblical; also, it’s virtues are not contained to the benefit of entrepreneurs since a major principle is to establish a balance between product value and quality versus price and availability. Branding is about trading in generally recognized virtues: this extends beyond price, quality, reliability. fashion, technical advance, etc these days to social responsibility, fairness, environmental issues, etc – in short modern brands trade on virtues that are not entirely business oriented. Some of this is image making, however, efficiency systems pioneered by the Japanese but being broadly adopted incorporate the notion that virtuous behavior can not and should not be confined to the factory floor. Brands are only successful when their unique selling proposition(s) reflect ideals of society at large.

    • I have duly shaken my head, and have come to the same conclusion: Corporations will derive their moral agendas from the people who buy their products, not from some internal motivator, and therefore should not be relied upon to police civil society. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Free speech doesn’t require your faith to maintain its relevance.

    Free speech guarantees the opportunity for truth. That’s all and it’s enough to warrant putting up with a few crazies polluting the forum because every once in a while they’ll be right and we’ll be wrong.

    Capitalism has brought us greed. Thats all. Theres nothing moral about it.

    We should be creating products that last for decades, not days. Not only for the sake of the environment but for the economy.

    Building, selling and consuming crap 24/7 is nonsense.

    • On the matter of free speech, we agree. And this is why I argue here that corporations shouldn’t be our morality cops, because what’s ‘right’ for society and what’s ‘right’ for a corporation will not always be aligned. Pretty simple. And protecting things like free speech is up to us, not the companies whose stock is in our pension plans. Thanks for your comment.

      • I don’t think you would advocate that airline regulations be left to the desires of the passengers.

        So why would you suggest that other corporations abdicate their moral responsibilities to their customers?

        • I’m sorry if I’m not being clear. Let’s take free speech as an example: I personally don’t want corporations regulating free speech on our behalf, silencing some voices and elevating others. We don’t seem to mind when they do it, because often they’re silencing the same voices we would. But what if that corporation was an arms maker, say, or a chemical company? Would we still be okay letting them decide who speaks and who does not? Regardless of how we feel about a particular issue, that’s something society should do. Defending human rights should be apolitical, and independent of the profit motive. Corporations should reflect our morals in their conduct (I wrote an award-winning book on this very subject), but they should not decide on their own what those morals are, nor should we be happy letting them.