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The Brave New World of Corporate Morality

“Where’s the Hentai?” I asked, puzzled, confronted with a sizeable gap in the shelving and a couple of taped-up boxes on the ground. “Head office called it all back,” my manager replied. “We can’t sell it anymore.”

For the six months I’d worked at the Canberra branch of a major DVD retailer, the anime section’s top row had been adorned with images of cartoon women in various states of undress. I had never quite under­stood the whole deal with Hentai, but was aware that it had quite a cult following amongst certain sections of the population. Now, courtesy of a mysterious upper management directive, they were gone; no longer to be slathered over by geeks or offered as joke Christmas presents by middle-aged female co-workers.

One thing this was not, however—in any real sense—was some triumph of morality over profit. Capitalism, in its purest sense, is amoral. Whatever atrocities it may incite, whatever inequalities it may perpetu­ate, its first and only objective is profit. That’s a principle that explains everything from the price of a hamburger to Ronald McDonald House Charities. Most (if not all) corporations work according to this rationale, and I can’t imagine the rules of the game are thrown out of the window at my former employer’s board meetings.

This wasn’t the last time that this corporation would take the moral high ground on DVD-related matters. A couple of years later, someone relatively high up in the company made the call to boycott A Serbian Film. In many ways, it seemed counterintuitive: as in the previous in­stance, hadn’t the Australian Classification Board approved this title for general sale with an R-rating? Why did a DVD retailer feel the need to second-guess them?

I questioned the directive then, too, and was told that “it wasn’t the sort of content [they] wanted associated with the business”. Sounds rea­sonable, perhaps, but where do you draw the line? There have been plenty of films with disturbing material emerging from Europe over the past decade or so—Irreversible’s nine-minute rape scene is one of the more notorious examples—and the horror genre is full of boundary-pushing, often morally questionable depictions of violence. Clearly, the fact that JB Hi-Fi or EzyDVD stock such films does not equate to endorsement; instead, it simply recognises the fact that, to put it bluntly, there are many different kinds of films out there that people want to watch and will fork out money for.

Of course, it’s a retailer’s prerogative to choose what it does or doesn’t sell. This, however, was no ordinary commercial decision. Hentai sells; so, as I’m sure a few other retailers would have discovered with A Serbian Film, does notoriety. The only plausible inspiration for this head office directive could be that the possibility of bad publicity was consid­ered to outweigh the benefits of selling a few more DVDs.

In the 21st century, PR (public relations) is a valuable, tangible commodity. Negative brand association means lost customers means lost revenue. Companies are increasingly wary of alienating ‘the public’ lest they face a backlash.

One school of thought is that this is very much a good thing. Beyond competition and government regulation, it’s the only significant means of corporate accountability. To some, therefore, this is merely an extension of the democratic process to the marketplace.

Unfortunately, that isn’t entirely true. Although corporations often become more (ostensibly) ethical, politically correct or environmentally friendly over time as cultural expectations shift, the direction isn’t always progressive. Far too frequently, knee-jerk PR-oriented decisions seem to carry a substantial streak of wowserism. These are not decisions taken in order to foster a more representative society; they are a method of avoid­ing the ire of shock jocks and tabloids. Even commercial media outlets themselves can’t afford to print or broadcast anything that might lose sponsors.

The inevitable result is an environment in which PR has far less to do with the public than the media’s conception of the public; a few offended customers far less of a concern than a manufactured outrage campaign in The Herald Sun. It’s highly unlikely, after all, that an angry mob would have ever descended upon a JB Hi-Fi store protesting against its trade in animated Japanese pornography; yet, the threat of a spot on Today Tonight was far more palpable. The process is so familiar that the public, playing its role or not, hardly even needs to be called upon. Perhaps, in a way, it’s poetic justice that someone like Alan Jones should have found himself on the wrong end of this phenomenon. That doesn’t make it any less concerning.

From the signing of the Magna Carta to the civil rights movements of the ‘60s, declining government power has been ostensibly accompanied by an increase in individual freedoms. In the last few decades, however, that decline has only paved the way for a sideways shift; the rise of a new behemoth, the commercial sector. The evidence is clear wherever you look: the failure of successive prime ministers to properly tax the mining industry; the ability of commercial media outlets to direct the political agenda. In the United States, big money more or less has its own major political party; the same, perhaps, can be said for Australia. Perhaps we are already consumer/employee first and citizen second; if not, the trend certainly points in that direction.

Companies’ ‘moral’ decisions will take on heightened importance as societal power bases continue to shift. Rather than cultivating a freer society, this transition runs the risk of returning it to a more conservative and repressive place. Little, after all, threatens progressive thought so much as institutionalised taboo. The caprices of the Classification Board are well-documented; in time, however, we may have cause to miss them.

David Heslin

The author David Heslin

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