Ages ago, when the country was slowly careening into the coronavirus pandemic, corporate marketing departments across the land pursued an unsubtle advertising strategy. By mid-April, seemingly every commercial airing on cable TV, radio, streaming services, podcasts, and online videos blared some combination of the same hollow message: We’re all in this together, from our family to yours.
It was disarming to hear these messages of reassurance, given the clear evidence that we were not all in this together: The federal government, and many states, were failing to contain and treat the virus, leading to mass death. But it was also infuriating: another example of capitalism wrapping its fingers around the latest tragedy and squeezing every last penny from Covid-19 victims. Listening to companies like Uber and Amazon use their 30-second ads to call their employees “heroes,” while they continued to underpay them and ignore their pleas for increased protection from the coronavirus was almost hilariously myopic.
In the wake of the Minneapolis cop killing of George Floyd and the subsequent nationwide protests against racist policing, The Brands yet again reflexively snapped to attention to peddle “corporate social responsibility.” Where the coronavirus messages and commercials spoke of coming together, corporations are now trying to insert themselves into the social justice scene, posting statements against racism and promising donations to fight it. It’s no more or less genuine than their Covid-19 campaign—a ham-fisted marketing tactic to distract from the fact that corporations are reaping hundreds of billions in tax cuts and refunds while Americans are left to do the actual work of surviving a pandemic and abolishing systemic racism. But it’s working:
Consider this brief sampling of corporate banality: “To be silent is to be complicit. Black Lives Matter,” Netflix tweeted on May 30. “We support Black lives. Today, and every day,” Disney-owned Hulu echoed six hours later. “For Once, Don’t Do It,” said a Nike ad. “Without the Black community, Reebok would not exist. America would not exist,” read the competing shoe company’s home page. “There is no place for racism, prejudice, or hatred,” stated McKinsey. “We will not stand for racism,” said the Atlanta Braves, incredibly. The Washington Football Slurs even got in on it, posting a black box in solidarity. NextDoor, a cesspool for racist gentrifiers and profilers, put out a message stating, “Everyone should feel safe in their neighborhood.” Even PAW Patrol, the animated TV show for children, posted a solidarity message:
Perhaps recognizing that these messages blur together, the most egregiously wealthy corporations have upped the ante. Google offered to match any donations to civil rights organizations made by its workers up to $10,000. According to the Observer, Facebook pledged to donate $10 million to employee-suggested organizations—perhaps an attempt at financially offsetting CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s inaction in the face of President Trump’s threats of violence against his own citizenry.
This sort of response is now standard practice within corporate America. As Vulture’s E. Alex Jung wrote Tuesday in a searing column on brand opportunism, “The personal is political is an opportunity for brand awareness.” Today, any brand that fails to release a statement is inviting controversy. To wit: Madison Square Garden and New York Knicks owner James Dolan, a man nobody should ever want to hear from unless the sentence starts with, “I’m selling,” was dinged for MSG’s lack of a statement.
Some executives have taken their virtue-signaling a step further by tossing measly sums of their personal fortunes at safe politicians. Cruise through the OpenSecrets pages of people like Zuckerberg or Nike CEO John Donahue, and you’ll find donation after donation to establishment Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, tech-loving Cory Booker. Ahead of the 2018 midterms, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos played the patriot card, pledging $10 million to veteran candidates (while also quadrupling his company’s spending in Virginia state politics ahead of the company’s push for a new headquarters near D.C.).
All of these self-congratulatory messages and conspicuous donations serve a singular purpose: to provide the executive class with political and social cover. Meanwhile, the billion-dollar corporations it oversees are flooding Capitol Hill with lobbyists. (Amazon ranked ninth in 2019 in terms of overall lobbying funds; Facebook was tenth.) For companies seeking to avoid controversy but still make off with sacks of the public’s money, it’s far easier to pull the strings on the Democratic side, cash in on the Republican tax cuts, and mimic the language of people of color who are putting their lives on the line for justice. And why wouldn’t they? In America, corporations are people, too. The only difference is that they don’t get called out on cable news for looting the country.