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Merry Consumermas and a Capitalist New Year

29th December 2012

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Over the Christmas and New Year period the illusion of the humane corporation – that corporations are ethical, in-touch, and caring –is perhaps at its strongest. We consumers are at our least critical as we cosy up with our families around the fire, reunited in the holiday season. Our soft, blinking eyes lap up the plastic corporate messages of goodwill that project from the TV screen, as adverts portray people together in the falling snow, together in the hustle and bustle of a roast dinner kitchen, together at Christmas time.

Take the Coca-Cola advert, for example. Every year whenever the Coca-Cola advert initially appears it seems like there is an explosion of ‘oh wow now it really feels like Christmas’ – as if Coca-Cola are the architects of the season of goodwill, when in reality they are a company with one of the most aggressive legal teams in the world of business. Indeed, there is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to outlining criticism of Coca-Cola regarding its financial, environmental and ethical practices. Yet people associate Coca-Cola with a procession of red trucks on a snowy road and with the feeling that ‘the holidays are coming’, rather than with the alleged bullying and environmentally-hostile..

Public image is everything - and in modern times advertising is by no means the only road corporations can go down in order to work on that image. Indeed, it is no accident that Jeffrey P. Bezos, CEO of online retail giant Amazon, donates large sums of money to charity; or that Larry Page, CEO and co-founder of Google, invests significant resources into renewable energy.

Of course, when you are worth $23.2 billion and $20.3 billion respectively, why wouldn’t you support a charity or fund some research – but the point is this: these men are the public figureheads of their companies. Their ‘philanthropic’ actions distract the media spotlight from the financial activity of the companies they themselves run. We look at them and think – ‘oh, they’re nice people – their companies must be nice too – they must be humane corporations.’ But we must remember to sever the illusory link between the personality at the helm of the corporation and the corporation itself: the corporation is there to make money, nothing more.

For, indeed, it has recently been uncovered that Amazon and Google – along with fellow billion dollar multinational companies including Starbucks – partake in complex tax avoidance schemes: a far cry from philanthropy. It is scandals such as these that temporarily pierce the illusion of the humane corporation, reveal the dark underbelly of capitalism and spur the public into action.

But is boycotting the individual businesses ‘guilty’ of such practice the right course of action to take? Moreover, can we even blame corporations for legally avoiding paying more tax than they are strictly required to? Can we not understand Coca-Cola for desiring a dominant share in the market?

In an interview with Bloomberg last month, Eric Schmidt – Google chairman – defended the financial arrangements of his company: "I am very proud of the structure that we set up,” he said. "It's called capitalism. We are proudly capitalistic. I'm not confused about this."

And this is perhaps the crux of the matter – the businesses that we describe as ‘immoral’ merely embody most faithfully the values of the economic system adopted by the Western world: free-market capitalism.  Though we may judge the behaviour of Google, Starbucks and the like on a moral level, the system under which we live rewards them financially for the way they conduct their business – and, legally, they are doing nothing wrong.  So, again: can we blame them?

Perhaps it helps to imagine the situation thus: thieving is legal. We can condemn the ethical practice of thieves all we like, but – until thieving is made illegal – corporate thieves will not and cannot be brought to justice. The solution is simple: make thieving illegal.  Or, in our case: introduce responsible regulation on free-market capitalism.

The humane corporation is an advert for free-market capitalism. The sooner we can dismiss the humane corporation as a mere illusion, the sooner we can dismiss free-market capitalism as an unfair, unequal and unethical economic system. So, the next time the strength of the illusion of the humane corporation wavers – the next time there is a corporate scandal – we must remember not to simply judge the singular organisation responsible for unethical practice, but to take the next step and critique the system that rewards organisations for acting in the manner that they do. Indeed, it seems strange that we can condemn Starbucks and the others for simply being clever with the law. Surely instead we must condemn the loophole-filled law and those that uphold it to stay on the good side of big businesses.

So, let us not be lulled by the illusory humane corporation and its warm, cosy adverts this Christmas and New Year period - rather than uncritical consumers let us instead be critical people and demand not the best value for money from business but the best value for humanity from society.  

The views expresssed in this article are those of the writer and not of TNS.

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