How big brands shape "the news"

Corporations now create as much demand for their pet causes as they do for their products. And with lots of money at stake, objectivity goes out the window.

Did you ever notice that advertisements these days seem almost as much about supporting a cause as they do about selling a product? Whether it’s Nike talking about protecting the planet and people or Ben and Jerry’s pushing criminal justice reform, all major brands have their favorite little cause de celebre. And those causes put a lot of money in their pockets.

Edelman, “a global communications firm that partners with businesses and organizations to evolve, promote and protect their brands and reputations” advises its clients, which include many major brands, that customers want to buy from companies that support causes they care about. Hence, for example, instead of selling people on how good their ice cream is, Ben and Jerry’s hired a Head of Activisim to get involved in causes that it thinks its customers care deeply about.

That seems innocent enough, but on deeper reflection this dependency on causes to sell products creates enormous pressure on our media to fill the airwaves and social media post-waves with news related to those causes: even when that news is not all that urgent and not all that, well, news.

Here’s how it works, based on the graphic above from the Edleman website.

Brands want to sell products, so they find a cause they think their customers care about.

Brands pay money to media companies and “influencers” that own our major news outlets and our social media platforms. (Currently, all our major news is owned by just six companies.)

The media and influencers push stories that give the appearance that the causes these brands support are more serious than they really are. They shadow-ban, deplatform, or deprecate sources that contradict the stories that the brands are pushing.

As a result of increased media attention, more people become aware of the pet causes of our brands (e.g. “social justice” and “climate change”).

People look for ways to support those causes, and the brands are there waiting with open arms—and Dr. Evil smiles—to sell them their products, promising to donate some of the sales to that dear cause that attracted those nice people to their products.

If the cause resonates well and sells a lot of product, the brands increase their spending on it and the hub bub grows.

Nowadays, getting a story right only means that it won’t cause a rift with some major brand’s Head of Activisim.

Of course this is nothing new. I’m old enough to remember the famous Coke commercial, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” from the early 1970s that sold the idea of unity in diversity. Big brands have probably always done this, but nowadays, the large-scale practice is quite dangerous. It has actually led us to a scary place: businessess are now, according to Edleman, the most trusted institutions in America.

It’s unfortunate that we put so much trust in businesses because it looks like they don’t care as much about those causes as they claim. In 2019, giving by individuals totaled an estimated $309.66 billion. Giving by corporations was $21.09 billion.1

Corporations now create as much demand for their causes as they do for their products. And when there is lots of money at stake, objectivity goes out the window. There is no incentive for journalists to double-check their sources or get their facts straight. Instead, the incentive is to spin the stories in favor of their masters’ narratives. Nowadays, getting a story right means that the story won’t cause a rift with some major brand’s head of activisim.

I’m not sure what can be done about this vicious cycle. For starters, we can let brands know that the single most important cause we care about is truth. Because if we have the truth, then we can know for sure which cause is worth supporting and which one is fluff designed to line the pockets of the corporate elite.