Advertising and sponsorship have always been about using imagery to equate products with positive cultural or social experiences.
[For] these people, there’s no such thing as enough.
Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar
Jane Akre, Ray Anderson, Maude Barlow, Noam Chomsky, Milton Freidman, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Vandana Shiva, Steve Wilson
US theatrical: 4 Jun 2004 (Limited release)
Corporations make money. Whatever the costs, however it’s done. A corporation, as Milton Friedman notes, can’t be morally accountable or emotionally sentient, any more than a building might be. And yet, a corporation has been legally assigned the rights of a person.
This historical development is the point of departure for The Corporation, a clever, well-wrought, entertaining examination of the ways corporations work. When corporations were designated legal “individuals” (via the Fourteenth Amendment, originally designed, of course, to grant human rights to former slaves), they were granted rights to make claims and legal arguments to protect themselves and their property. The film argues that today, corporations are the planet’s dominant institution, such that their welfare, as individuals, takes precedence over all else.
Based on co-producer Joel Bakan’s book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, the documentary compiles a range of interviews, with supporters as well as interrogators and opponents of corporations, economists (Friedman); academics (Elaine Bernard of Harvard University argues against corporations’ legal capacity to own and sell everything); CEOs (Goodyear Tire chairman Sam Gibara); historians (Howard Zinn); reporters (Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, who blew the whistle on Fox News’ efforts to repress their story on the dangers posed by Monsanto’s synthetic bovine growth hormone rBGH); media activists (Michael Moore, who revisits his encounters with Nike CEO Phil Knight); a corporate spy (Marc Barry) who feels no guilt over his chosen profession; a feminist seed activist, Dr. Vandana Shiva, who observes the senselessness of the “suicide gene” that assures seeds become unusable after expiry dates); and a spokesperson for Disney’s Celebration, Andrea Finger, who insists, smiling, “The Disney brand speaks of reassurance, it speaks of tradition, it speaks of quality.”
The diversity of opinion and experience with corporations indicates that The Corporation, directed by Mark Achbar (Manufacturing Consent) and Jennifer Abbott, means to be “fair.” And yet, even those who speak in favor of corporations tend to make them sound nefarious, or at best, heartless (which is, as Friedman says, their nature—as they are not people, they can not have ethical, cultural, or emotional standards, much less sensibilities).
The film provides another framework by which to measure the effectiveness and effects of corporations, the diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Partly funny and patently absurd, the evaluation takes legal language on its face, submitting that if a corporation is legally “a person,” it might be expected to behave like one, too. Narrated by Mikéla J. Mikael, the film proceeds to check off DSM-IV categories in which corporations exhibit what can only be termed extreme disorder (they are deceitful, callous, amoral, unable to maintain relationships, can’t feel guilt or remorse), examining “case studies” of corporations’ injurious behaviors (polluting the environment, exploiting workers in sweat shops, valuing profits over lives, as when commodities broker Carlton Brown reports Wall Street traders’ responses to the abrupt rise in gold prices as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11).
The documentary includes testimonies and opinions from well known activist scholars like Noam Chomsky, who points out a shift in corporations’ historical purpose (in the olden days, corporations were entrusted to “serve the public good”) or Zinn (A People’s History of the United States), who notes the connections between the rise of European fascism and corporate structures. Edwin Black (IBM and the Holocaust) argues further that Nazi accounting systems were aided by early punch-card machines, at which point an IBM VP, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, appears to say, essentially, that a company is not responsible for uses of its product. Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface, the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer, takes a different view, asserting that businesses must be liable to their social and physical environments, publicly promoting the concept of sustainability.
Corporations are implicated as well in the ongoing and increasingly global drive to patent, own, and sell everything from DNA to water (the film’s example here is the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life, a Bolivian anti-water privatization activist organization, which agitated against the privatization, costing one demonstrator’s life). Benefiting from this drive in particular are resourceful students Chris Barrett and Luke McCabe, who convinced a bank to “sponsor” their $40,000 college tuitions, then went on to market their arrangement with assorted television appearances.
Given the film’s premise, that corporations are by definition deceitful and self-sustaining (like sharks, perfect machines), an examination of public relations and marketing is to be expected. Naomi Klein (No Logo), for instance, contends that “branding is the new production,” and moreover, today, “All relationships are commercial,” mediated through self-images premised on brands. Product placement in movies or tv is old hat; nowadays, the more sophisticated and all-pervasive method is to insure products are visible and available at every moment—you see someone on the sidewalk extolling the virtues of a new drink, or someone on the subway who endorses a new CD—such seemingly innocuous instances provoke purchases.
More or less agreeing with Klein, but coming from the other direction, Lucy Hughes, the VP of Initiative Media, recounts how she created the Nag Factor study, in order to help corporations best make use of the ways kids nag their parents for stuff. Training children from infancy to absorb through mass media commercial messages, corporations don’t only create future adult consumers, but importantly, create incessant gadflies to their parents’ patterns of consumption, now.
As The Corporation makes clear, we’ve come a long way from the days when corporations were assigned to look out for the public good. All sorts of definitions have shifted, from “public” to “good” to “corporations.” As expectations have changed—as to who’s responsible to or for whom—the film also offers some hope, observing that some battles have been won. If sweatshops still exist, at least now they’re visible (or were, during the Kathie Lee Gifford/Wal-mart publicity blitz). And if a CEO might be educated and go on to educate (Anderson being the exemplar here), then perhaps others might follow suit, contemplating long-term effects rather than only pursuing immediate profits. Let’s hope so.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.