What do Brands Owe to Persons?

22 Jun 2022 By thomas

In filling out remaining holes in my super awesome portable modular synthesizer, I bought a part from one of the many one-person companies that make these niche products. With it came a Chick Tract, infamous comics that were produced for decades by a man of the name Jack Chick, espousing a religiously fundamentalist worldview. I of course find the content of them quite odious but they also remind me of growing up in rural Southern California, where even some serious adults in my life believed the kinds of silly ideas these comics earnestly promoted.

I was not offended to have one in my order but I would understand if someone else was - many groups of people caught Jack Chick’s ire, from gay people to scientists to non-Christians to other Christians. It wasn’t even the first time a specialty electronic music item I purchased came with a side of overly enthusiastic evangelism. While school administrators of the past had power over me, this person didn’t. It was a transaction between peers, I handed over money and he handed me his artisan small batch item. For whatever annoyance, it was a reminder that it’s a real human behind the product.

I was actually a little shocked when, only a few weeks after getting my order, the person closed shop, due to complaints he received. I don’t know the entire story and another company may also have been involved. Association with bigotry and hard sell evangelism is the sort of injury to a brand that should be avoided if just on ethical grounds, so it’s understandable if any other business wants to avoid even the appearance of association. But also, all brands, big or small, have real people behind them and those people have obligations to others.

I can’t help but sympathize with an eccentric maker of music-related products as an eccentric maker of music-related products myself. But my sympathy for those whose lives have been destroyed by the kinds of ideas Chick Tracts espouse is greater still. In this case, it’s simple - the right thing to do is also the smart business decision, but it’s not always that easy. Your obligation to do the right thing doesn’t stop when it costs you money, opportunities and prestige.

Pride month is coming to a close and people have been once again talking about the spectacle of companies changing their logos to signal support for LGBT rights, with some noting shallowness or hypocrisy behind it. Thorne, someone with first-hand experience dealing with an employer who presented a supportive public image only to behave quite differently internally, notes the good signs and also the shortcomings of corporate virtue signaling:

The way corporations react to social issues serves as sort of a prediction market. Even if you interpret their actions with utmost cynicism, the reason they are doing it is still relevant — even if not directly. Yes, it is about profits. But it is built on the recognition that society is more likely to reward than penalize a company for expressed LGBTQ+ support.

It’s no surprise that companies with strong anti-LGBTQ+ stances are often not publicly traded - the notorious Chick-Fil-A with its recent backing of another wave of queerphobic legislation is still a privately held company. Even still, the company has worked increasingly hard to hide its donations. They are aware of the public backlash it creates, but the ideology of its founding family overrides good business sense.

We should still criticize the hollowness of companies that do make a public show of LGBTQ+ support — my former employer a company with a perfect 100 from the HRC horrifically mistreated me as a trans employee pursuing surgery. It’s easy to check a box but much harder to be a meaningful ally as an organization, and few will commit to the latter.

It’s not profitable in the US and other developed countries to openly express bigotry towards LGBT people. That’s a good sign as the market reflects the culture. It’s just not a good indicator of how well an entity can be trusted to do the right thing when it costs them to do so. We’re all in the business of making money but we must refuse to violate ethical principles towards that end. Refuse contracts from bad actors, refuse to acquiesce to dictatorships that violate human rights. And oppose bigotry even when the bigotry is popular with the majority.