Virtue Signalling: New Age Philanthropy or Systemic Hypocrisy?

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The aim of this article is to highlight the hypocrisy of corporations that stand for social justice but are causing damage to those societies through their business practices.

For far too long, people involved in the marketing and advertising industries have celebrated brand plays from the comfort of their LinkedIn profiles. Over the last months, I am sure you have seen endless reposts of articles and corporate and brand messages which celebrate brands’ recent philanthropy or ‘commitments’ to COVID-19 relief or the BLM movement. I am not dismissing it: their financial support at this time is much needed, and their transparency on how they will become better is essential. However, all of the social media reposts have highlighted to me how far off the industry is from understanding the systemic problems we face.

Over the last 100 days, many brands and agencies have used COVID-19 and the BLM moment opportunistically, as a way to express their humanity, connect to their audiences and avoid call-out culture. Sadly, these campaigns or messages have exposed those businesses’ talent for hypocrisy and virtue signalling.

Virtue signalling is ‘the act of pretending to be virtuous rather than having a genuine passion for an issue’. We can all think of cases where friends, influencers, politicians or CEOs have exaggerated their feelings of outrage because they had a strategic reason to do so. And sadly, in 2020, it is not hard to identify self-glorifying brands who partake in activism on behalf of a cause or demographic with which they are not directly associated, or a cause they have a role in creating but whose narrative they wish to alter.

Let’s start with COVID-19. During this pandemic, many of the world’s largest corporations have worked hard to use positive acts, such as pivoting their business efforts to disaster relief or donations, to negate their responsibility for the real systemic failures we are watching unfold.

We are now also watching this repeat itself with Black Lives Matter communication strategies. Many of the world’s most influential brands and businesses are releasing statements or commitments of solidarity. But all are still engaging in financial practises that cement inequality in society, thereby laying bare the hypocrisy inherent in their actions.

In short, global brands are using virtue signalling to distract not only from previous moral abdication and apolitical stances in the face of injustice and suffering, but also from their tax evasion. That is to say, they are directly responsible for the reduction of vital government resources for healthcare and society’s most vulnerable, oppressed and discriminated against. Companies that avoid paying tax to increase profit take money directly from those who need it most.

Tax evasion isn’t a new topic, though it is one that many big brands try to cover up through a flurry of dazzling new product launches or purpose-led campaigns. These moves usually suffice to change the narrative, as far as mass media goes. But enter a health pandemic, enter a global uprising against systemic racism, and trying to shift the gaze with fluffy messages and ‘commitments’ gets a lot harder.

Tim Cook, the Apple CEO, tweeted back in early April: “Proud to share we’ve been able to source 10M masks for the US and millions more for the hardest-hit regions in Europe. Our ops teams are helping to find and purchase masks from our supply chain in coordination with governments around the world.”

But Cook’s announcement gave rise to an essential question: “How about you just onshore Apple’s $250 billion offshore cash and pay taxes so we can take care of ourselves instead of having to endure these insufferable displays of virtue signalling?” Apple’s UK corporation tax totalled £237million in 2018 – an effective tax rate of just 2.9 percent (Tax Watch UK). They do this by avoiding tax, shifting revenue and profits through tax havens or low-tax countries, and by delaying the payment of taxes they did incur. The UK isn’t an anomaly, with 60 of the Fortune 500 companies in the US avoiding all federal tax and many receiving tax refunds (ITEP).

Next up, Nike, an example of how not to do it right now. The brand finally got caught out for their usual hollow response, polished up in a dazzling piece of content. The ‘For once, Don’t Do It’ moody message got enormous support initially from the White branding bubble, and a considerable push back from the Black community. Thanks to the power of the internet, it only took one 15-year-old activist to compare their lyrical video to a photo of the all-White, mostly male board to call out the hypocrisy of the brand. When you examine their complicity in systemic racism further, as of 2017 Nike has publicly offshored $12.2 billion (Quartz). If its $12.2 billion were repatriated to the US, it would owe $4.1 billion in US taxes. Think about how many people they deny resources through the loss of that money into the failing racist system.

“Dear business colleagues – if you want to help heal this country, here’s step one: Pay your fucking taxes. Until you’re willing to do that, please instruct your marketing departments to spare us the high-minded pieties,” Bob Hoffman.

There is no way to virtue signal around this once you know the ugly truth. When brands take Machiavellian moves to avoid paying taxes, they are doing generational harm to societies. They are harming people that have the greatest need for education, housing, health, and social services, which in turn has a further generational knock-on effect. So if brands want to create systemic change, on top of their tax-saving philanthropy and ‘commitments’, they must stop removing resources.

So, before you repost another article, corporate or brand message, check the facts. Check if your company, your employer, and you are paying the correct tax. If not, understand the endemic damage that is doing to the communities who need our care the most.


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