Should companies express political views?

With the current marriage debate and postal plebiscite going on, it has become especially fashionable for companies to jump on the bandwagon in voicing their support for gay marriage. The most recent high-profile case would be that of the AFL. But the AFL is far from the first: in recent history we’ve had ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s turn activist, and later QANTAS, and there are many, many more.

The traditional (and legal) view is that a company’s purpose is to turn a profit. And it seems to me that a profit opportunity ought to be present if a company wishes to engage in political advocacy. I’m sure CEO Alan Joyce – being gay himself – genuinely supports gay marriage. But I don’t think he’d be campaigning so visibly if he thought it would hurt QANTAS’ profits, especially given they’ve only just extricated themselves from a financial quagmire. But consider: who is QANTAS’ customer base? Of course, Aussies make up the majority of the customer base, but the high profit margins QANTAS is currently enjoying come from the Chinese. In the Joyce’s own words: “We see Chinese tourists exploring the entire domestic network…For the 12 months immediately following we saw a huge surge in numbers, and a lot of it around the Presidential [Xi Jinping’s] visit was also business travel.” So, with the boom in Chinese tourists, Joyce can count on a steady (and increasing) supply of customers, even if he alienates a portion of the Australian customer base who care enough about gay marriage to actually change airlines. So Joyce is hardly taking a huge risk here.

Virtue Signalling in the sporting world

Would the AFL put a big pro-gay marriage sign on their logo if they thought it would generate a huge backlash and lose viewers and money? If it were the 90’s, I don’t think they would – it would be career suicide for the executives. Stereotypical AFL fans probably exhibit the common Australian cultural tendencies of contempt for authority and political incorrectness. So when the wealthy elites and preening intellectuals imperiously instruct the masses to what to believe or how to act, it’s guaranteed to rub this segment of the population the wrong way. But you’d at least hope that the executives have judged that promoting the Yes cause would improve – or at least not injure – profitability. Executives get paid the big dollars for making these sorts of management decisions correctly: Will this TV time slot get more advertising revenue? Would more merchandise stores in the suburban malls increase profits? If they thought publicising this political position would lose money, they wouldn’t do it. But it needn’t be said that executives sometimes misjudge the market: currently in the States, we’re seeing the NFL’s ratings suffer in the aftermath of Colin Kaepernick’s petulancy.

And yet, the NFL has doubled down on the issue and drawn yet more attention to controversial political issues. Even mainstream media outlets acknowledge that Kaepernick’s actions and the continued politicisation of the NFL has alienated a very large chunk of fans and is a reason for the ratings decline. Are the executives not acting in the best interests of the NFL shareholders? We’ll get to this later.

Oh, the hypocrisy….

But if these companies are turning to political advocacy out of cold, calculated profit motives, technically, there should be nothing wrong with this. After all, they are simply acting in accordance with function. So why does it rub me, and so many others, the wrong way? Obviously it’s dishonest. But that’s nothing new: our legal system has long permitted companies to be creative with the truth: ‘mere puffery’ which a reasonable man would know isn’t entirely true is legally allowed, and socially expected. But perhaps getting involved in political advocacy is a bridge too far for some. Everyone knows that when a sign says ‘best burgers in town’, it’s subjective and probably untrue. But when companies pretend that they have values, they’re no longer talking about themselves and their products: they’re dictating to society. Just remember – they wouldn’t do it if it would lose them money. And no one likes being told what is morally acceptable by someone with a clear profit motive, and especially when they’ve jumped on the bandwagon at the last minute. That’s why Sam Newman was perfectly correct when he said the AFL was nothing more than “obsequious, fawning, sycophantic political whores.” They’re just doing it because it’s fashionable, risk-free, and possibly profitable.

But notwithstanding this, I wonder how much actual calculation has gone into these decisions. Is it really based on profit making, or on fear, or something else? Are these executives being swayed by noisy political activists and mentally bludgeoned into compliance? It is unlikely that in reality, executives always act in accordance with the profit motive; although in such cases, executives are failing in their duties to the shareholders. But my strong suspicion is that these executives are not acting rationally in the gay marriage debate, but rather, they are being swayed by noisy minorities. After all, these days it takes a lot of courage to publicly say you don’t support gay marriage. But so long as it doesn’t lose money, they’ll get away with it.

Even more hypocritical is the position it puts employees in. Companies love to say that they look after their employees and want to ‘foster an inclusive culture, regardless of culture, race, sex, political persuasion’. But I say: if you’re an employee voting No, keep your mouth shut. You don’t have free speech when money is king. Not that a No-voter employee could somehow affect a large company’s profits. But this is a case where self-interest trumps fairness. For the same reason why all the companies are siding with the yes cause, individuals within a company are only too happy to build career capital by destroying a thought criminal.

An unsatisfactory conclusion

What leaves a bad taste in my mouth is that companies portray themselves as having values, when in fact, they are profit-driven. Companies exist to make money, not to change the world. People supposedly use quality and price as the main determinants of where they shop, but these days it seems that a company’s displayed values are important also. If consumers demand that a company appear to be value-driven, then we can expect no less of the companies but to respond, and reap the profits. It really does show how dumb we’ve become, when companies consider that lying to their customers about having certain values is a financially sound operating method, in the full knowledge that customers want to be lied to about their companies having values. If anyone really thought about it, they would realise it was just about money: companies don’t have values, only profit motives. So to answer the title question: Should companies express political views? Well, they should if it’s profitable, even though it’s dishonest and hypocritical, and if people are dumb enough to choose to shop there because of their virtue signalling, that’s simply an unfortunate consequence of our liberalised society.

About the Author:

  • Charliedelto

    I think you are making a good point. Surely Qantas and the AFL have opinions on abortion, euthanasia and the building of mosques but you can be sure we’ll never see any of these points posted on a football. Why? It’s not profitable enough. What this will all end up meaning is that if your social issue is palatable (ie, bully pretty young women) you can be sure every celebrity will jump on. But if your social issue is unpalatable (ie, mothers hitting their kids) too bad for the kiddies as the AFL’s PR team won’t allow them to champion it.

  • Zagul

    as long as it sells… if set and obvious realities such as gender don’t matter anymore much less organisational “values”. Values nowadays are dictated by fashions and “celebrities”, not by common sense or established traditions.