Here are the last of my notes from the presentation for The Corporation. I’m going to gather them all into a single entry and post that entry next week.
The Hockey Allegory
- The general feeling in professional
hockey is “What happens on the ice, happens on the ice”. In the rink,
you can commit all kinds of acts that would get you charged with
assault in the real world.
- You end up with two selves: on the ice / off the ice
similar rule applies to corporations. Outside working hours, you’re a
citizen with moral values and views. During working hours, however,
it’s okay to do wrong things:
- Use sweatshop or slave labour
- Break laws bercause the fines are inconsequential relative to the profits
- Under such circumstances, you live in a “bifurcated world, morally”
- In one extreme case, the CEO of Shell Oil managed to convince the Nigerian Government to have people hanged
between corporate behaviour “off the ice” and “on the ice” is blurring:
CEOs are taking favouring a “Howie Meeker” approach over the “Don
Cherry” approach: Tom Klein (Pfizer) made an effort to refurbish the
Brooklyn neighbourhood in which a Pfizer branch was located, the CEO of
BP supports the Kyoto accord and BP even has solar-powered gas stations
Social Responsibility vs. The Coprporation’s Legal Mandate
problem with social responsibility is that it comes up against the
legal mandate of the corporation. How does a corporation justify
actions it takes to be socially responsible?
answer: Any “socially responsible” initiative has to be good for the
company. All corporate acts must be in the corporation’s best interest
law demands that when companies do good, they must justify it in terms
of self-interest. This is the “Best Interest Principle”: the head of
the corporation has to act in the best interests of the company. The
courts have interpreted “acting the best interests” as “maxmizing
- Example: Although BP’s CEO supports the Kyoto accord,
he is also pro ANWR drilling. The reason? Supporting Kyoto costs BP
nothing. They found efficiencies that allow them to follow the accord
without losing money. At the same time, there is an opportunity cost in
forgoing drilling in ANWR, and it cannot be conclusively proven that
the porcupine caribou herd in ANWR will be wiped out or that the way of
life for native people who depend on this herd will be altered
- Example: the Steven James story. James, a
reporter, does a story on hormones given to dairy cattle, which end up
appearing in their milk. He filed the story for FOX News. Monsanto came
down very hard on FOX for allowing such a story to enter the queue, and
threatened to pull all their advertising. FOX news killed the story and
Why did people who “ought to have known better” consent to be interviewed for the film?
people who consented to be interviewed are proud of what they do. They
were, according to Bakan, “intrigued by the project, and were
intelligent and thoughtful people” who wanted to engage in the
- Most notable case — the one that got the most laughter from the audience was Lucy Hughes.
- Hughes was trying to solve the main problem with marketing children’s goods: children don’t buy things, their parents do.
solution: “The Nag Factor”. She realized that there were two levels of
vulnerability: parents are easily manipulated by their children, and
children in turn are easily manipulated by television. The trick was to
turn kids into a live-in marketing department targeting their parents.
looked at effective nagging habits: 20% to 40% of purchases were the
result of successful nagging on the part of the child. According to
Bakan, “entire coporate empires” live and die by the nag. Hughes was
trying to answer the question “How do you create the ad that creates
the right kind of nag?”
- “You have to admire the brilliance” of this, Bakan said.
took this common-sense knowledge and turned it into a science. She got
behavioural scientists to do research for her, and based on that
research classified nags. For example, there are simple “I want it! I
want it!” nags, and there are more complex “reasoning” nags, such as:
“I want the Barbie Dream House so that Barbie and Ken can have a
family” — these nags get an “Oh, how clever!” reaction. The best
results are obtained when kids use both style of nags.
- She also classified 4 types of parents:
- Deniers: Upper-middle class. Kids have to make good arguments in order to convince their parents to purchase.
Pals: These are typically younger parents. They actually, if
subconsciously, want the toys for themselves, and will look for any
excuse to purchase.
- Indulgers: These people — often single
parents — feel guilty about not spending enough time with their
children and purchase to compensate.
- Conflicted (Bakan puts
himself in this category): These parents resent the fact that their
children are the targets of such intense marketing, but buy the toys
- Another interviewee: Milton Friedman. His assistant said: “If he’s bored with your question, he’ll walk out of the room”.
- Many CEOs said “no”, but not out of any explicit objection to the concept of the film, but because they said were too busy
corporate spy who was interviewed in the film has not ended his career
by appearing in it. He is, in Bakan’s own words, “a master of disguise”.
is an imprecise term. A more correct term is “anti-a-particular-kind of
globalization”. It’s against the neo-liberal kind of globalization that
- First signs of this movement: the
APEC meeting in Vancouver in 1997. By this time, they’d already started
making the film. The APEC demonstration was the first major mass
demonstration of this sort, and arose from concern about the complicity
of nation-states and corporations.
- “Deregulation” is a misleading term: it’s really just a shifting of control from government to corporation.
Government: Antidote to Corporate Malfeasance?
- You can’t have property rights and contracts without the state
- In the “Anti-globalization” movement, there is a sense that you can’t confront government anymore.
says that still have to work with governments and even with political
parties and “build more democracy around the shell of democracy we
- Corporations can still be influenced by
governments; after all, there are no porperty rights nor contract law
- The idea that we can somehow rely on
socially responsible consumers, CEOs and shareholders to
“self-regulate” is a myth — we still need some other mechanism, and
that is government.
On Non-Fiction Book and Documentary Filmmaking
- Documentaries are likely to become a more popular type of film, considering the attention it’s been receiving lately. Cites:
- The interest in SuperSize Me
- Errol Morris’ recent Oscar
- Mark Achbar being invited to a Vanity Fair party
- Documentaries can have influence: in the wake of SuperSize Me, McDonald’s announced that it will remove the SuperSize items from its menu. Its rationale: they want to “simplify their menu”.
seems to be an appetite for non-fiction books and documentary films.
Bakan suggests that this appetite is driven by people’s opinion that
that the world is veering onto a dangerous path and their need to
understand the “why” and “how” behind things. They try to reckon what’s
going on with the world. They come with their own point of view, but
you know what that point of view is. Their format must be entertaining,
moving, inspiring and humourous.
- Even if what the non-fiction
book or documentary film’s content is dpressing, they are successful if
their audiences walk out feeling hopeful, inspired, becuase they have
- Many good non-fiction books and documentary
films take what their audiences intuitively sense, and build around
them with evidence.
The Success of the Book
- There’s a lot of angst out there, and that has contributed to the book’s success. It’s angst over:
- Encroachment of commercial values in the schools that their kids go to
- The environment
- Less job security
- The lowering of safety standards
- A lot of this comes from governments’ giving more leeway to corporations.
very important part of Bakan’s message: this state of affairs isn’t
part of natural law. Corporations are not forces of nature; they are
creatings of our own making: we have somehow allowed our governments to
hand over power to them, and we can take it back.
- Trying to provide “a sense of understanding and a sense of hope”.
What You Can Do
- In book, Bakan proposes what can be done in the near future
- “The fact that we can’t do everything doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do something.”
- Start acting:
- Join a political party
- Join your school board
- Do something
- We’re losing that sense of being citizens — if we lose that, we’ve lost the possibility of democracy
- See The Corporation web site for more discussion/ideas/ongoing dialogue
I know fall into vicious cycle of avoidance and denial — things are
bad, and instead of changing the situation, they’re retreating and
avoiding it. How do you motiviate such people?
This is a
hard question to answer at such a general level. You have to talk to
your friends. “If we care about issues, we should to talk about
them to people who something to us” — it’s part of being a family
member / community member.
You talk about the corporation
as a monolithic entity. They have different forms depending on where in
the world they are. Why didn’t you analyse the corporation in its many
The focus is different in the book and in the
film. In the film, we were looking at the US transnational for-profit,
publicly traded company, the institution having the greatest impact. We
tend to think of corporations in terms of difference — company X,
company Y, company Z, industry 1, industry 2, industry 3 — but I
wanted to convey the sense that corporations share the same
institutional structure. Once you abstract away the industry they’re in
or what they produce, the actual underlying institution doesn’t vary
much from corporation to corporation. Underneath it all, they are
entities whose reason for existence is to generate wealth for their
What about the relationship of the filmmaker to
the corporation? In some way you have to play into the corporation to
get published or your film shown.
True. The US book
publisher is Simon and Schuster, and they in turn are owned by Viacom.
The film was shot on Panasonic cameras, and distributed bycorporations
in the US, Canada, UK, Italy. They were shown in theatres owned by
corporations. This is proof that the corporation is the dominant entity
in our society: you can’t make anything without them. To try and make
something outside the sphere of their influence is “like saying you’ll
operate outside the monarchy in 13th-century England”.
seemed silly and ironic, but they thanked their corporate sponsors at
the awards ceremonies at Sundance. American filmmakers said of them:
“Well, those guys can joke about corporate sponsorships; they have a
whole public infrastructure supporting them.”
The problem: Public
broadcasters are under attack and privatization is a holy grail. We
should be concerned about the demise of public cultural institutions.
Certain people such as Michael Moore are stars, and have the appeal to
do what he wants, but most of us don’t have that luxury.
When you look at the success of corps in China, India — outsourcing — is this the beginning of reform?
on a talk radio in the US. Heard from a truck driver: “I only buy
American, and I make wife buy American too. I’m a conservative
anarchist, but I don’t like the way things are goin’.”
losing jobs to the developing world: self-interested concern. This will
probably shape up to a major issue in the election and could be an
election winner for the Democrats.
Of course, there are
those such as Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute, who say that by
outsourcing jobs, we’re doing people in developing countries a big
favour. They’ll do slightly better than without us. Alturism isn’t the
goal, though, cheaper rpices are. The high-mindedness is over an
“incidental benefit” to these people. It’s the old “in a slave system,
the slaves are materially better off” argument. It’s “a morally
specious argument, and it’s always suprising to me when people make it
with a straight face.”
We need to twin policies to both protect
local jobs and support aid programs and redistribution of wealth [The
“R” word! I just felt a great disturbance in the Libertarian Force —
Joey]. We have to be willing to pay more so that people in the
developing world can have decent lives.
What do mean that corporations are required by law to act in these ways?
meant to safeguard investors, to guarantee that their money will be
used for the prupose they intended rather than to pay for some
manager’s vacation. It’s the Best Interest Principle.
How did you go about balancing appeal to emotion and appeal to reason?
is a difference between appealing to emotion and being manipulative.
Not all appeals to emotion are manipulative, and not all are for
profit. There is a difference between art for advertising and art for
creativity. In writing the book and film at same time, they influenced
each other: the film had more intellectual rigor, and the book had more
narrative and emotion.
How do you pose a political challenge to corporations, if they’re so powerful and pervasive?
you look at history, you’ll see that it’s often at the time that the
dominant forces seem most omnipotent that they are actually the most
vulnerable, whether it was the Church, the monarchy, or the Communist
Party. In the end, it was people’s willingness to stand up to these
forces that caused the chnage to happen.
Bakan: “I don’t know
what choice we have” other than to believe that we, as citizens, can
change for the better. Ultimately, we are the ones who empower the
corporation. We in essence created corproate law and property rights.
The institutions that we’re up against are institutions that we’ve
made. “Perhaps I’m an optimist, and perhaps I being naive, but
corporations aren’t forces of nature. We can change them.”
Bakan comment: Advertising encourages us to think in terms of our own
self-interest solely, and tries to paint corporations as “good
personal rant: Will you people at this sort of Q&A session stop
prefacing your questions with mini-manifestos? Just ask the damned