In the News It Happened to Me

Notes from the "The Corporation" presentation, part 3

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.

You might want to see part one and part two of the notes.

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
  • A

    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
    • Pollute
    • 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
  • Distinction

    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

  • The

    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?

  • The

    answer: Any “socially responsible” initiative has to be good for the

    company. All corporate acts must be in the corporation’s best interest

  • The

    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

    fired James.

Why did people who “ought to have known better” consent to be interviewed for the film?

  • The

    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.
  • Her

    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.

  • Hughes

    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.
  • Lucy

    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.
    • Kid’s

      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
  • The

    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”.


  • “Anti-globalization”

    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

    we’re experiencing.

  • 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.
  • Bakan

    says that still have to work with governments and even with political

    parties and “build more democracy around the shell of democracy we

    already have”.

  • Corporations can still be influenced by

    governments; after all, there are no porperty rights nor contract law

    without government.

  • 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”.
  • There

    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

    new knowledge.

  • 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.
  • One

    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

Q&A Session


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.”

Other notes

  • Other

    Bakan comment: Advertising encourages us to think in terms of our own

    self-interest solely, and tries to paint corporations as “good


  • My

    personal rant: Will you people at this sort of Q&A session stop

    prefacing your questions with mini-manifestos? Just ask the damned


One reply on “Notes from the "The Corporation" presentation, part 3”

I don’t really feel there’s anything wrong with marketing towards children. I, in fact, find the ‘Nag Factor’ a fascinating concept. If it appears as if the parents are victims of manipulation, take a look at why they give in to The Nag.

Deniers, first off, are a hard sell (this is interesting, as they are above the socio-economic mean), and as such can be set aside from this analysis. The Kid’s Pals seem to look for an excuse to purchase the toys anyway. The level of manipulation via the child(ren), I would wager, is minuscule in comparison to their desire. Indulgers feel guilty about too much time away from their offspring. While I can understand that it is sometimes difficult to find time to spend with one’s family, I think the main problem here lies with scheduling (and perhaps a dash of neurosis) — not with the marketing tactics. It simply isn’t the marketing department’s fault that certain guardians don’t feel they spend enough time with their child(ren).

The Conflicted, I can sympathize with, to some degree. The truth is, however, that advertising is something that children are going to have to deal with sooner or later. If you don’t agree with the tactics don’t buy the product. Also keep in mind that in North America, people are generally raised to be consumers (ranging from discerning to sheep-like). We buy our groceries from the store instead of growing them, we purchase clothes instead of making them, we give our children toys instead of helping them build their own. These are not necessarily bad things. We are simply teaching our youth how to survive in this culture. Advertising as we know it is just a part of life in this quadrant of Earth, and the best we can do is teach the kids how to be aware of it (and how it works).

What I do have issues with is when certain ideals are sold to children. For example, I can’t see any incarnation of Barbie as being beneficial to a child’s body image of theirself (Ken, at least, was somewhat muscular, an attainable trait). Although I can’t think of any specific examples at the moment, anything which promotes brute violence as an acceptable substitute for intelligence and reasoning is going to irk me as well.

Selling something because it is cool, shiny, and engages the mind and senses? Groovy. Selling something which promotes bêtise and/or insecurity? Not hip at all.

{sfx=”strong_bad”}Holy Crap.{/sfx} I didn’t mean to get into academic mode. I’ll be stepping aside from the soapbox-cum-podium, now.

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