Corporations have power.
It is common “liberal rhetoric” (that associated with those on the left) to highlight the negative consequences of such power, and in many cases they are right to do so. Corporations have the power to exploit people and resources, the power to manipulate, and the power to make and utilize vast amounts of profit. For example, oil and mining companies are arguably profit-oriented and power hungry entities; to such an extent that people’s lives and homes are at risk.
Of course, there exist partisan differences in how people relate to corporations (or on the flip side, labour unions). But I have another proposition. Instead of decrying the ills and evils of big business, why not acknowledge the benefits and potential gains they can bring in the framework of social change?
Social change, social engineering, changing people’s perceptions – whatever you want to call it – corporations do it all the time through advertising.
When I say social change, I mean it in the sense of a progressive movement where, for example, equal opportunity to marry regardless of sexual orientation is embraced, where women have the right to choose, where racial discrimination has no place in society, where people are free to wear whatever they like, and where individuals, corporations, and government actually work to address climate change.
There are ways business can and has been doing just this. Socially responsible investment (SRI) considers both a financial return and social good (though there are probably differing opinions on what constitutes this social or common good). Social enterprise is similar in that it is an organization aiming to maximize human and environmental well-being rather than maximizing their profit shares.
What I want to talk about is the immense power of advertising and campaigning that corporations have. Kraft’s “gay Oreo” controversy stirred up both support for and against the campaign, with some people insisting that Kraft’s “attempt to ‘normalize’ the behaviour of homosexuals has cost [them] a customer.”
I find this fascinating, for a company that takes such a controversial stance stands to lose business. However they also gain more customers, they are standing up for what they believe to be right, and they gain publicity – all of which are advantages to taking such risks.
Corporations, big business, and high-end brands are known for something – the quality of their tangible product, their innovation, and their creativity. If this can be harnessed by way of advertising to make controversial statements for the purpose of progressive change, then please, continue to influence public opinion! Shifting public opinion is exactly what awareness campaigns, student groups, charities, non-profits, think-tanks and research groups try to accomplish all the time. But if corporations can do this more successfully I challenge them to do so.
An argument could be made that indeed, corporations are probably better at driving social change than any non-profit, charity, or government program. They usually have more money, they are better organized than non-profits (anyone who has worked with one can likely attest to this), they are much more specialized in their own niche and have specific skills that can be applied and transferred, they have a great degree of investing power, they are arguably more visible than the government (corporatism and consumerism drive the Western world), advertising is rampant, and big business can take risks that smaller organizations may not be able to.
Corporations can use their immense power for good. Look at Google and the ways it’s changing the world! Besides technologically, Google is a socially conscious and progressive organization which has stood up against China’s censorship and has developed Project 10 to the 100. Furthermore, Google has very recently launched a new initiative known as “Legalise Love” to promote human rights and tackle employment discrimination (you can read more here).
If more companies focused on SRI there would be more socially responsible companies to invest in. If more corporations took a stand for progressive change, that change would come faster. If people and consumers demand that their products be attached with such progressive notions of change, the supply of such products and companies would increase. It’s a positive feedback loop, or in economic terms, a virtuous cycle where a step forward begets another.
Do not mistake me as a naive supporter of corporatism, for I know very well that big business constitutes some of the greatest perpetrators of crime and corruption. Yet do not underestimate the potential for good that some companies have.
Profit and progress are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Profit makes the world go ‘round, but business can drive it forward.
Navneet is a third year political science and economics student with a penchant for arguing, debating, and advocating for progressive change. You can read this article, as well as others penned by Navneet at navneetkhinda.com.