MADISON, Wis. — During my stint as senior writer for a consulting company, Arthur D. Little, Inc., I became an avid reader of a weekly broadsheet called Advertising Age. I discovered that Ad Age was a sort of Delphic oracle for trends driving and altering corporate policy throughout the developed world. Where madmen dip a toe today, the rest of the world will dive tomorrow.
It’s a matter of survival for advertising executives — and the corner-office execs who hire them — to read the tea leaves and entrails of social change before governments and peoples embrace those changes. The price of failure is commercial irrelevance.
Everybody’s current favorite example of corporate concession to social and political pressure is the decision by Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola and other companies to denounce the passage of voter suppression laws by the Republican-dominated Georgia legislature. But this belated lurch was more reactive than prescient. Delta and Coke were caught flatfooted by a political upheaval that outpaced their squads of marketing seers and advertising wizards.
I’m not surprised. Social and political change tends to be gradual, allowing big private institutions to sniff the wind and prepare for the coming storm. In the normal course, capitalism’s first impulse is recalcitrance. If, for example, the consultants advising Amalgamated Tanaka (a fictional firm) warn that it might have to cope with sexual harassment claims, the first line of defense is to rally an army of lawyers who will fight to discredit any woman who dares challenge the patriarchy. She gets painted as a shameless hussy who “asked for it” by dressing “provocatively” and having a sexy walk. Not to mention that she’s uppity.
This legal blitzkrieg strategy often succeeds, sometimes for years or decades. But when Amalgamated’s cultural scouts report that the times are changing in ways that no campaign of intimidation, influence-peddling or propaganda can forestall, pay attention to the corporation’s p.r. machinery.
Protesters and reformers rarely have much impact on the devout profiteers of the Milton Friedman gospel. Nor do appeals from Congresspersons, governors, mayors and activists ever tend to sway the decisions of predatory industries or companies — like the tobacco barons of old and the opioid pushers at Purdue Pharma. But shortages, disruptions, costly accidents, acts of God and, especially, seismic shifts in public opinion, can instill in the Board of Directors the urgency to adapt or die.
For example, after the Deepwater Horizon blowout poisoned the Gulf of Mexico and savaged its reputation, BP didn’t just apologize and promise to upgrade safety at its offshore operations. BP’s leaders grasped that a pollution event of such magnitude had changed forever the popular — and political — perception of the extraction industries. Suddenly, BP ads were rife with green energy references. Exxon Mobile, perhaps the most prodigious polluter in the oil and gas sector, also read the handwriting. It began rhapsodizing about biomass energy and started airing TV vignettes of its blindingly green algae nurseries.
I don’t mean to suggest that either BP or Exxon are undergoing a come-to-Jesus transition from drilling and fracking to wind, sun, sugar cane and hydrogen. At this point, they’ve adopted the classic corporate two-pronged approach of a) stalling and b) adaptation.
Let’s go back to Amalgamated Tanaka, which has noticed that its standard operating procedures are becoming untenable. Nevertheless, it continues to loudly profess that it’s obeying the law, doing the right thing and providing consumers with products that are essential to the well-being of society and the prosperity of the economy. Simultaneously, Amalgamated continues to lobby ferociously against legislation that might hinder business-as-usual, and to ply every available politician with fine Corinthian leather suitcases full of quid-pro-quo.
That was Track One: the stall.
Track Two is a public face that’s both phony and realistic. As always, Amalgamated pays sarcastic lip service to clean air, clean water, public health, consumer rights, economic equality, motherhood and all the other do-gooder folderol that flows from its battalion of corporate p.r. flacks. Meanwhile, however, Amalgamated begins to shoulder its civic responsibility. Quietly, it inaugurates a program of positive change, cleaning up its act in response to social, political, environmental and economic forces that are beyond its might.
In the energy sector, for example, the only factor currently preventing wind, solar and biomass power from eclipsing fossil fuel is infrastructure. When power transmission from wind and solar farms becomes ubiquitous, oil and gas will lose their competitive edge. The supply of sunlight and moving air is infinite, and to harness it doesn’t require armies of roughnecks drilling speculative holes miles into the ground or deep beneath a fragile sea.
Every extraction company gets this. Today’s oil-company ads about renewable R&D are largely hogwash that serve to delay the energy transition. But they are also a harbinger of long-range planning by these companies to adapt to the inevitable.
I don’t read Ad Age any longer. Like most publications, its presence now is almost exclusively online, and its coverage is — as it always was — rampant with fluff, gossip and shiny objects. But, amongst the hype and between the lines, the advertising industry remains a bellwether. And you don’t even need to read Ad Age. Just watch (or stream) television.
Today, in the third decade of the 21st century, legislatures in at least seven states have introduced bills to restrict or rescind rights for gay and transgender people. American schools are more segregated by race than they were on the day in 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education was decided. We are experiencing a frightening uptick in hate crimes across America.
But — on the other (dominant) hand — in TV commercials, there are black men kissing black men and lesbian couples snuggling on the couch. There are biracial families picnicking in the park, Latinos gathering to celebrate their psoriasis cure, white and black husbands smelling the laundry, and an Asian woman making a Power Point presentation to a mostly white and male board of directors. Shaquille O’Neal is selling painkillers, Ice-T is pitching insurance and Jennifer Lopez is urging us to get our shots.
And we’re buying. If we weren’t buying, the admen (and adwomen) would revert to Betty Furness, Ed Reimers and Mr. Whipple.
We all sit and watch, unprotesting as the dreams of the progressive movement — a veritable rainbow of diversity — unfold before our eyes, brought to us by the biggest, richest, whitest, most conservative corporations on earth.