(Note: My biweekly Promotion Fix column no longer has a home, so I’m publishing this special edition myself.)
“You, alright! I learned it by watching you!”
In July 1987, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America launched what would become one of the most famous — and most parodied — public service announcements in the United States. In the broadcast, a father finds illegal drugs in his son’s bedroom and asks how he learned to use drugs. The son’s response above is still quoted to this day.
The PSA’s effectiveness has always been debatable. But for marketers and communicators, it is actually the perfect example of how hypocrisy — in the parental or corporate worlds — looks. As I show in a new speech for 2020 in my role as a marketing keynote speaker, many companies that say they want to help the world during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak are actually doing the complete opposite.
Saying Versus Doing
Communications in general — and the tactics of advertising and PR specifically — is what a company says. But every other department or function of a business is what the company does. Whether intentionally or unknowingly, what companies say often contradicts what they do.
Businesses say that they support women during ads for International Women’s Day but actually treat their own female employees terribly. The advertising world talked about brand purpose at Cannes Lions last year but ignored a real opportunity there to fight climate change.
Company responses to the coronavirus will be the ultimate test.
The Hall of Shame
So, I will introduce the Coronavirus Business Hall of Shame. Amazon, it should be no surprise, tops the list.
On March 21, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said that the company had “changed logistics, transportation, supply chain, purchasing, and third party seller processes to prioritize stocking and delivering essential items like household staples, sanitizers, baby formula, and medical supplies.” He also wrote that Amazon had placed purchase orders for millions of face masks for employees and contractors who cannot work from home.
That’s all well and good. But it is not all that Amazon has done. According to Popular Information, part-time employees and contract workers — in contrast to full-time employees — are not receiving paid sick time, even if they test positive for COVID-19. Instead, they must apply for a grant to cover their sick leave. Amazon is also reportedly asking for public donations to cover the costs.
Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world, and Amazon has paid nearly zero taxes for years to countries throughout the world. Surely, both he and the company could do more. And how much would the money from fair amounts of paid taxes have helped governments today in the fight against the coronavirus?
It does not stop there. Some Amazon (and Instacart) warehouse workers have walked off their jobs to demand greater protection and pay. Employees at Amazon-owned Whole Foods have done something similar. Amazon reportedly fired at least one leader of the strikes and discussed ways to smear him during a meeting.
The airline industry is almost as bad as Amazon.
The ten largest passenger and cargo airlines told Congress that they will not layoff workers before September if they receive a $58 billion bailout. (What about after September?) But over the last ten years, the largest airlines have spent most of their free cash flow on stock buybacks — in other words, making the shareholders richer. (Bloomberg Business puts the amount of money used for that purpose at 96%.)
One of the first things our parents teach us is to put money aside for a rainy day — or viral pandemic. The airline industry has usually been a tough one, especially with margins growing smaller in recent years. So, I must ask: Did it never occur to them to put some cash into retained earnings — the business version of a savings account? After all, a crisis seems to hit the industry every ten or twenty years.
A cynic might be tempted to wonder if the boards and major shareholders have an ongoing plan to suck out as much money as possible from airlines, keep them barely afloat, and then ask for a government bailout when times get too tough. It’s a good thing that I’m not a cynic.
Coming in a close third is Facebook.
Facebook announced that it will give $100 million to local news organizations in the United States during the pandemic. But the social network itself is what put community journalism on life support through people now getting all their “news” on Facebook and local publications losing massive amounts of advertising revenue as a result. It is like McDonald’s donating money to heart disease organizations after getting kids hooked on the company’s fast food decades earlier.
Further, Donald Trump — who is handling the crisis disastrously — would not be the president of the United States without Russia’s presidential election interference through social media networks. The coronavirus might prove even worse. False information about the pathogen is flooding private Facebook groups. People are also dying after taking fake cures that they found online.
Now, to Facebook’s credit, the company took down a livestream from Brazil’s president because it contained misinformation. I saw the platform provide a link to the World Health Organization when I did a search for “coronavirus.” But the fact remains that Facebook serves as an information gatekeeper only when it wants. Why does the company not address all misinformation? Because it would be physically impossible to do and stay in business.
Fourth is McDonald’s itself.
In one of those symbolic acts that actually do nothing to help people in need, a McDonald’s outlet in Brazil separated the golden arches to offer support in this time of social isolation. But in the United States, the company reportedly lobbied against paid sick leave in the coronavirus relief bill.
And here is a collection of dishonorable mentions of companies doing terrible things.
Medical staffing company Alteon Health — which is backed by private equity firms Frazier Healthcare Partners and New Mountain Capital — will cut the salaries, time off, and retirement benefits of doctors and nurses who are fighting the coronavirus as I write this.
As freelance creative director Nathalie Gordon noted on Twitter, Cannes Lions cancelled this year’s festival and stated the reason was that creatives would not submit quality-enough work in this environment. Are they fucking kidding? As a keynote marketing and media presenter who attends dozens of events every year, I can almost assure you that the reason was simply that no one was coming and the sponsors pulled out.
Some companies are purchasing spy software to track what employees are doing as they work from home.
Liberty University — a Trump-aligned institution — opened despite the coronavirus epidemic. Several students fell sick. One student has tested positive, and the results of the others were pending at the time I wrote this column.
Arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby defied state-ordered lockdowns and opened stores while denying sick leave to employees after — you cannot make this up — getting a message from God. They relented only after receiving a cease-and-desist order.
Harvard University was laying off nearly all dining workers and planning to give one month of pay to directly-hired workers but not those who were subcontractors. Harvard changed course only after an outcry. Remember that Harvard’s endowment is $41 billion.
The Greater Context
On March 30, Edelman released a report on what role consumers expect brands to play during the pandemic. The main findings:
- 90% want brands to do everything they can to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and suppliers
- 71% percent said that if brands put profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever
- 89% want companies to offer free or lower-priced products to health workers, people at high risk, and those whose jobs have been affected
- 84% said they want brand advertising to focus not on selling but on how brands help people cope with pandemic-related life challenges
Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban warned on CNBC against companies sending employees back to work too soon.
“Not only is it a safety issue, it’s a business issue,” he said. “How companies respond to that very question is going to define their brand for decades. If you rushed in and somebody got sick, you were that company. If you didn’t take care of your employees or stakeholders and put them first, you were that company.”
For the business world, I have one question for everyone who is a major shareholder in a company: Are you willing to accept a lower revenue, profit, and share price in the medium term in exchange for helping your workers?
I have always been skeptical of most “brand purpose” and “cause marketing” in general. But during the time of coronavirus, companies can truly make a difference. Hopefully, we will not learn brand hypocrisy by watching them.