At the beginning of last year, the musician India.Arie posted a video on her Instagram which caused a lot of headaches for my employer at the time, Spotify. It was a mix of the many times Spotify’s star podcaster, Joe Rogan, had used a racial slur for black people in his show. I need not tell you what a calumny it was. Unsurprisingly, the video quickly went viral, and a huge uproar ensued.
Rogan has already sparked controversy by broadcasting Covid misinformation and interviews with transphobic speakers For Spotify, a company based in Sweden (the supposed mecca of social democracy) that caters entertainment to a largely young, socially conscious consumer base and employs a young, socially conscious workforce, you’d think it would be obvious – if you were. to listen to the characterization common of conservative politicians and “heterodox” experts – what would happen next. The dictates of “awakened capitalism” would certainly require a ritual sacrifice from Rogan, despite the huge sums Spotify paid to bring his show exclusively to its platform. It wouldn’t matter that he was the company’s #1 podcaster. The awakened crowd has spoken!
Needless to say, things didn’t go that way. Rogan apologized in a long Instagram video, and Spotify’s response was not to pull the plug on his show and torpedo the interests of the company’s shareholders. Spotify supported its star (even as several episodes were quietly removed). It also announced a $100 million fund to support underrepresented artists and podcasters. But, according to Bloomberga year later the company spent less than 10 percent of the money.
This is the little power of awakened capitalism!
I thought about this incident as I watched ferocious campaigns building against companies that take even the most milquetoast stances on social and cultural issues, especially those involving gender and sexuality. It reached a peak last month with Pride, leaving a wake of social media videos of people outraged over things like onesies and Koozies decorated with rainbows.
These battles will not stop with the end of Pride month. They are just the skirmishes in what will likely be a long culture war fueled by resentment over everything from the casting of a Black actor as Ariel in Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid” to investment funds including some concern for diversity. and inclusion in deciding where to put their billions.
“Awakened Capital” is already a major issue of the Republican presidential race. The threat is apparently so great that Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida invoked Winston Churchill’s famous Dunkirk speech, replacing “awakening” for the Axis powers as enemy No. 1: “We will make war on the awakening. We will fight the awakening in education, we will fight against the awakening in the corporations, we will fight against the awakening in the halls of Congress.” Vivek Ramaswamy presents much of his campaign in the themes of his 2021 book, “Woke, Inc.”, a rant about so-called woke capitalism, which is somehow to blame not only for America’s social problems, but also for its economic problems.
This exaggeration of the power of socially conscious capitalism is understandable given how aggressively the notion has been sold to companies and consumers. Research studies, many of them conducted by companies that advise businesses on corporate social responsibility, have propagated the power from “target” to drive consumer loyalty.
Color me skeptical. Consumers make choices for many reasons: price, convenience and marketing. Maybe politics. The other day I went to my local Walgreens to buy toothpaste and ended up choosing not my favorite brand, but the only one that wasn’t locked. I didn’t want to wait for an employee to release the Colgate, so Crest it was. Needless to say, I didn’t use Google to find out which brand was more dedicated to body autonomy. What can I say? I was in a hurry.
My somewhat narrow view of the possibilities and dangers of awakened capitalism was formed by seeing some of this play out from within the corporate suite, albeit in the limited context of media and technology companies, running the editorial and business ends of a podcast company at Spotify. and global news organization, HuffPost, when it was owned by Verizon Media.
I have bad news for fighters on both sides of this war. For those on the left who find comfort in seeing big companies take bold stances on issues they care about, I’m here to tell you that those companies care far more about their bottom line than your beloved cause (see the Spotify example above) .
And those on the right who feel the wind is at their back with successful boycotts of “woke” brands are likely to be disappointed for similar reasons. Even this year’s big hit — a boycott of Bud Light after it ran with a transgender influencer as part of a broader social media campaign that apparently took a toll on brewing giant Anheuser-Busch’s stock. to drop — was a Pyrrhic victory: It is absolutely impossible to find a beer company that doesn’t participate in celebrating Pride, thus doing exactly what the right accuses them of: pushing a liberal agenda antithetical to conservative mores.
It turns out that queer consumers and their allies are important to companies’ bottom lines, and — especially in a tight job market — companies can hardly afford to alienate queer workers and their families and supporters. Even after conservative consumers and gay rights activists, Bud Light promised continue to support odd businesses.
These battles disguised a greater truth: Corporations, far from dictating cultural mores from some capitalist Olympus, reflect and co-opt the social trends around them.
In 2018, as the Black Lives Matter movement gathered strength, Nike created a controversial ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the black football player who famously knelt during the national anthem to to protest police racism and brutality towards Black civilians. The backlash was huge, but ultimately the social tide turned in Nike’s favor: Its share price appeared and the advertising campaign was seen as a bold success.
But corporations can also change direction, quite easily, when the mood changes.
At Cannes Lions, an advertising festival held every June in the south of France, members of this year’s jury, which hands out awards for advertising campaigns, were instructed to stay away from politics and celebrate work that was more focused on commercial success, Semafor. reported.
This is a remarkable turnaround. I’ve attended the festival a few times in my years as a media executive, and it often seemed like a competition to see which company could one-up the rest. It reminded me of a line from the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley,” in which a tech executive declares, “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else is making the world a better place than we are.”
After the murder of George Floyd, companies fell over themselves to embrace black causes. Some actions were gestures that cost nothing, such as music streaming services observed a period of silence to observe the killing of Floyd. Content companies have pledged to increase their programming for, by and about black people. Many businesses have made promises to diversify employment, especially in their management ranks.
But the evidence so far shows little progress on these promises. Netflix, the once unstoppable juggernaut that seemed to eat Hollywood for breakfast, is an interesting case in point. As its growth slowed and the political climate changed, it said archived plan to produce an anti-racist video series. Look at it published diversity and inclusion track shows a small decrease in the proportion of Black employees in general and executives in particular.
Thomas Frank, a historian and journalist who has chronicled the culture wars for decades, told me that he “always suspected that the backlash politics that swept over the country in the late ’60s and throughout the 1970s came , at least in part, from the way business culture rubbed Middle America’s noses in coolness and in Middle America’s own inadequacy and uncoolness. But the political backlash that resulted didn’t hurt the corporations at all – on the contrary, they ended up simply changing their marketing approach to suit the new mood and then entered a golden age with Reagan and the 1980s.”
The center-left has been lulled by its apparent cultural power, which supports the belief that progress is inevitable if the time frame is extended enough. In a world with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” how could we talk about locking up drag queens, we gasp?
The deeper problem is that our politics do not respond to people’s preferences. Our systems of government increasingly favor electoral minorities – such as gerrymandered state legislatures in a polarized environment – rather than ordinary compromise. This leads to ideological fervor. Almost no checks on a state legislature bent on maximum cruelty.
In this atmosphere it is not so surprising that progressive consumers turned to corporations to be a mirror of their concerns. Despite clear majority support for abortion rights and LGBTQ rights, we are increasingly leaning towards a system that allows a fanatical minority to impose their views as law. It’s easier for us to hold corporations accountable than politicians. We make decisions about how to spend our money every day. Best case scenario is you vote in new officials every other year.
But awakened capitalism is a paper tiger. Companies embrace identity and cultural inclusion as a way to expand their market share to new communities while blurring their raw political power and the ruthless underpinning realities of shareholder capitalism. Elites on the right, meanwhile, know very well that it’s a paper tiger, but are more than happy to play along with a shuck and jive that allows them to wave “woke” as a hedge against the left – and for some voters, it does the essential job to arouse resentment
Following the dictates of plain old capitalism, Spotify choosing to support Joe Rogan, after the company signed him as an exclusive podcaster, was a good business decision. But the decision also made business sense for other reasons. It meant that if a right-wing mob came for weird programming on the platform, the company could point to that decision because it defends hosting podcasts that my colleagues did, things like “The Two Princes.” fantasy show for kids about two princes who fall in love, and “Gay Pride and Prejudice,” a modern take on Jane Austen’s classic. A simple policy of consistency about free speech within defined boundaries rather than appealing to the extremes of the culture wars is frankly better for everyone.
Above all, these partisan disputes over politics and business serve as a useful reminder to everyone across the political spectrum: Corporations are not your friends. They do not represent your interests. Yield to their power at your own peril.