Bokhari: Welcome to the Corporate Culture Wars

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From coffee machine manufacturers to social media giants to the NFL, progressive virtue-signalling has infected every inch of global corporate culture. It is now the most dangerous opponent of freedom in the west, threatening both the Trump agenda and freedom of speech. How did it start? How can it end?

This week, the story is coffee machine maker Keurig, which pulled ads from Sean Hannity’s show at the prompting of Media Matters, and is now facing a conservative backlash of NFL-size proportions. But it isn’t just one or two companies engaging in virtue-signalling, it’s practically all of them. It’s Pepsi, which panders to antifa in its ads. Its Heineken, which salutes open borders in their adverts. It’s Twitter. It’s Starbucks. It’s KLM airlines. Despite vast differences in their products, services, and consumers, every industry seems to have the same virtue-signallers.

From the moment of Trump’s inauguration, corporations have been engaged in a frantic struggle to block his agenda. White House globalist-in-chief Gary Cohn, along with the now-disbanded CEO council, did everything they could to blunt the President’s trade policies and prevent him from exiting the Paris Climate Agreement. The same CEO council, along with Cohn, sought to pressure Trump with a series of resignations following his response to a combination of racist white nationalist and Antifa violence in Charlottesville.

And that’s corporations playing nice. When their values are threatened by people who do not sit in the Oval Office, they do far more than simply resign. Earlier this year, after being spooked by mainstream news articles claiming YouTube was a cesspit of terrorism and hate speech, corporations promptly yanked their ads from the platform en masse.

Revenues plummeted overnight, and YouTube quickly added stringent new systems that prevent even remotely controversial content from receiving ad revenue. Once, the platform was a place where bold, independent commentators could develop healthy incomes without answering to any old media gatekeeper. Now, even YouTube’s politest fast food reviewer is having trouble keeping his ad revenue, as the platform introduces ever-stricter language codes. One tantrum from corporations was all it took for free speech on one of the web’s most promising platforms to be all but snuffed out. 

Corporate ambivalence to free speech and hostility to the Trump agenda is matched by their regular, almost desperate attempts to pander to progressive sensibilities. Airlines are no longer happy with just telling you about the speed and comfort of their planes; they also want you to know that they support gay pride. Pepsi doesn’t just put celebrities in their ads these days; they put celebrities attending progressive rallies in their ads. Heineken has decided that “how refreshing, how Heineken!” isn’t a woke enough slogan for the present era. They now prefer “open your world,” complete with an accompanying ad toasting a “world without borders.”

To the Trump movement, a movement that has run Democrats out of the House, the Senate and the White House, and ensured a new conservative Justice on the Supreme Court, it must be incredibly frustrating to hear that there are still more worlds to conquer. Yet the progressive culture of corporations is, if anything, more dangerous than a Democrat-controlled congress. Private corporations are not bound by the first amendment and can quell free speech far faster than the government can. If they want to cause financial ruin to a business or an individual that has the “wrong” values, they can. If they want to be a roadblock to the Trump agenda, they can.

So, If populists and conservatives want to achieve their aims, they must change the culture of corporate America. To do that, they must understand how progressive values managed to infect corporate culture. Only then will they stand a chance at containing the disease.  

Virtue-Signalling Smoothies

Corporations never make a decision without considering how it affect their bottom line. Why hasn’t Twitter’s hippie hobo-in-chief Jack Dorsey banned Trump yet? Because, unlike all the other conservatives he’s banned, Trump is crucial to his company’s profitability.

Profits come before political values, then. But why did global corporations decide that adopting progressive values would help their profits? Doesn’t the left hate capitalism, after all?

The answer lies with a number of upstart companies that appeared in the late 1990s and early 2000s, promising a new form of capitalism. The new fad had many names: “ethical capitalism,” “social entrepreneurship,” “socially responsible capitalism,” and so forth. But all the companies shared one idea: you can be a profit-hungry capitalist and still be a progressive.

Those companies discovered that virtue-signalling could help distinguish otherwise-unremarkable products. Take smoothies: there are many different brands, each tasting fairly similar. Yet if a smoothie company pledges to give 10 percent of your sales to help humanitarian causes, as the little-known British company Innocent Drinks did in 2004, then they stand out.

Founded in 1999, Innocent Drinks combined a hipster aesthetic (grass-covered vans were a big thing at the company), a hipster target market (they initially sold their products in ultra-liberal North London and at music festivals), and, with their deliberately public virtue-signalling, hipster values. The formula proved to be successful: within a decade, the brand became one of the biggest in Europe and was eventually sold to Coca-Cola.

Ethos Water, a bottled water company founded in 2001 with a team that included current ADL CEO (and notorious Breitbart-hater) Jonathan Greenblatt, is another example of successful capitalist virtue-signalling. Few products are more generic than bottled water, yet within two years of starting operations, it had been sold to Starbucks for $8 million, and can now be bought in every one of the coffee giant’s stores. All it took for Ethos was a feel-good name and a donation, that, although tiny ($0.05 – $0.10 to clean water charities with every purchase), is proudly boasted of on the side of every bottle.

Ethos and Innocent were pioneers, and their example was quickly followed. Today, progressive virtue-signalling is built into the fabric of global corporate culture. Moreover, in an effort to distinguish themselves even further, the grandstanding is growing more radical. Even though it was later trashed by activists for being too nice to the police, Pepsi all but glorified the violent “resistance” movement earlier this year in a controversial advert featuring Kendall Jenner. Twitter invites radical race-baiters and progressive provocateurs to cosy up to senior management. Corporate donations to radical left-wing groups like the SPLC are common.

Even as the left hails corporations as the “moral voice” of America, cracks are beginning to appear in the virtue-signalling business model. First, it is no longer as distinctive as it was when Ethos and Innocent were founded. When both Coca-cola and Pepsi boast of their commitment to progressive values, they cancel each other out. In order to choose between the brands, consumers have to revert to a more traditional criteria: how good they taste.

Corporations are increasingly coming face to face with a more dangerous possibility: that, far from making consumers more likely to buy their products, virtue-signalling now alienates them.

There is no better example of this alienation than the NFL. On the face of it, the League’s job seems supremely easy: they have to sell professional football in a country where it is practically a national religion. Yet, thanks to some profoundly stupid political stunts on the part of its players, they have catastrophically failed even this simple task. Between the September 21st, when the #TakeAKnee campaign took off, and September 29th, the NFL’s public approval ratings nearly halved.

Keurig fell into the same trap this week. By bending the knee to Media Matters and yanking ads from Hannity, they’ve alienated thousands of middle-class consumers who buy their products. Leftist students don’t buy Keurigs: suburban families and business owners do. And now they’re throwing out their Keurig machines.

Even virtue-signalling from celebrity surrogates is becoming a problem for brands. Bourbon manufacturer Jim Beam is currently under boycott from conservatives because its brand ambassador, Mila Kunis, decided to troll the Vice President by signing Planned Parenthood donations in his name. It probably went down well in lefty Hollywood, but conservatives drink Jim Beam too. Or at least they did, until Kunis pulled her stunt. 

They won’t admit it, but corporate America is watching. Like the games industry during GamerGate and the NFL earlier this year, consumers are sending the business world an unmistakable message: virtue-signalling is not welcome in all industries.. Ethos Water might be able to sell it in Starbucks, but middle American sports fans are a rather different market.

To really change the nature of corporate culture, though, the right must take things a step further. It’s not enough to show that virtue-signalling has ceased to be profitable. It must be shown that the real profits lie in doing the precise opposite.

Vice-Signalling Protein Shakes

In the summer of 2015, little-known fitness company Protein World stumbled, quite by accident, into culture-war stardom, reaping huge financial rewards in the process. It all started with an advert, rolled out across London’s public transit, that would prove to be both wildly controversial and immensely successful.

Advertising watchdog

To a fitness company, these ads must have seemed perfectly innocent. To the feminists of London, however, they were rage-inducing on multiple levels, from sexual objectification to “body-shaming.” It didn’t take long before activists were vandalizing the ads and calling on the Mayor of London to ban them, while their allies in the media penned outraged op-eds.

A year later, the activists got what they wanted, when the leftist Mayor of London banned “body-shaming” adverts. But by then, the campaign had long since backfired. Consumers reacted to the outrage by giving Protein World their business. Within days of the controversy, the company added 20,000 new customers and made revenues in excess of $1 million.

Recognizing a winning marketing strategy, Protein World’s management decided to double down instead of apologize. After denouncing the protesters as a “vociferous minority,” the company put the offending ad on a giant billboard in New York’s Times Square, along with a marketing campaign in the city’s subways.

“Best of all,” joked the company’s outspoken marketing manager at the time, “you could say that this campaign was paid for by the protestors in London!” Just as the NFL discovered that progressive virtue-signalling can damage the profitability of a business, Protein World discovered that vice-signalling could sometimes achieve the opposite.

Another company that benefited from attracting the rage of leftists include Play Asia, a Hong Kong-based company that supplied the Japanese game Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 to western markets after its publisher declined to do so over fear of a western social justice warrior backlash against the game’s politically incorrect content. After successfully baiting “SJWs” on Twitter, the company surged to prominence after a left-wing “boycott” attempt left them with thousands of new, devoted fans.

Beyond video games and fitness, the fast food chain Chick-fil-A is a more prominent example of a brand that benefited from a “buycott” after becoming the subject of national controversy over company president Dan Cathy’s opposition to gay marriage. Despite ceaseless attacks in the press throughout 2012, the company’s sales soared by 12 percent.

The kind of industries where vice-signalling may be effective is becoming clear. Football, video games, protein shakes. They are industries typically shunned, or at least treated with ambivalence, by metropolitan hipsters. They are beloved by middle America. They are, we are told, “uncool.”

But for a business, uncool should be fine, as long as its profitable. Indeed, so many brands have been trying to be hip, cool, and on top of the most cutting-edge social justice trends, that doing the opposite is far more likely to distinguish a brand. The tipping point will be when companies realize they can make more money by being the bad boys. Just as how punk rock went from being anti-establishment to being pro-Obama, it could all one day flip back.

What’s more, vice-signalling is still a largely untapped goldmine. Chick-fil-a and Protein World fell into it by accident. It was only Play Asia that deliberately set out to antagonize social justice warriors. But the success of these companies shows that there’s an eager market out there, keen to give their money to an entirely new kind of “socially conscious” company.

A  “socially conscious” coffee company has also been thrust ino the spotlight thanks to the Keurig boycott. Black Rifle Coffee, a veteran-owned company whose marketing slogans include “Make Coffee Great Again” and “Stand for Freedom.” They have benefited from an upsurge in social media attention over the past 24 hours, including endorsements from Hannity and Donald Trump Jr.

Leftist virtue-signalling at major corporations has long gone unchallenged, but its golden age is drawing to an end, as conservative consumers find their voice. Just as the broken promises of mainstream politicians gave rise to Donald Trump, and the dishonesty of the mainstream media gave rise to the alternative media, the virtue-signalling of major corporations may has resulted in the birth of an even more disruptive force: the alternative economy.

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