Public Payback’s a B_____

Saw some strong examples lately of powerful public backlash after an organization makes a lame ethical or Customer Service move. We all know that, due to the internet, consumer backlash can be immediate & global. That’s not new. What’s new is how persistent & creative the backlash can be.

Starbucks was ‘outed’ a couple weeks ago for juggling U.K. accounting in a way that’s legal, yet unfair to U.K. citizens & home-based competitors. Their tax avoidance was seen as disrespectful to a nation in which it has done business for >15 years. One advantage of going global is being able to shift profits to countries with higher taxes to havens with lower tax rates- hence gaining further advantage over local competitors, who have no option but pay their fair share of taxes in their home nation. The surprise isn’t the vocal nature of the U.K. backlash, nor that it went global; the surprise is its persistence! The story just won’t go away for the Seattle-based firm. Prominent articles keep appearing in global papers & sites weeks later, due to fresh protests. [The day after I posted this, Toronto Star's WORLD section's cover story on 'Europe's Tax Wars' featured a full page colour pic with 'V for Vendetta' masked protesters in front of a Starbucks]

Coca Cola, Pepsi & other global bottlers of sugared-fizzy-water aren’t just facing the wrath of a NYC mayor, but a counter-cola movement by physicians, healthcare groups & involved public citizens who mustered a highly creative ‘Real Bears’ animated video generating millions of youtube views and by

launching a polished looking ongoing site

It isn’t just powerful & fully fact-based, it’s also a resourceful, refined, creative way to hit Big Global CPG’s. By building their own site, the group gain persistence and create a lever to take control of the subject matter.

I’m surprised Western Civilization isn’t taking Unilever to task for shlepping ‘Fair & Lovely’ skin lightening cream in India. My students are aware & point out the irony that the firm getting accolades for a Dove ‘Real Women’ campaign, is also responsible for Axe ads that are demeaning, humiliating & belittling to women.

Bic is also getting some backlash. The pen & shaver giant got an earful from witty U.K. consumers; with British tongue-in-cheek, they ‘credited’ Bic’ for launching a ‘Pen For Her’. Witness the Wicked Wit in ‘Product Reviews’:

posted for the product on amazon.

It’s the use of irony here that’s so potent- again- a very creative method to deliver backlash.

Even seemingly immune icons are at risk. Passionate people dedicate time, creativity & talent to ensure Messrs Spielberg & Lucas don’t deliver another ‘stinker’ unscathed. Not-so-subtle requests for Quality Assurance come via Rotten Tomatoes, the Razzies, and this

terrific backlash effort!

Next on the Public Backlash list? Perhaps…Apple? Once a counter-corporate darling (at the SuperBowl 29 years ago, they became a pro-arts counterculture icon, with the ’1984′ ad) it has become ‘the establishment’. The world’s most valuable company now uses its clout to get artists to accept very low fees for content; pays Chinese workers low wages via Foxconn, and, according to The Star, pays a tax rate of just 1% on foreign earnings. Good tactics for world shareholders’ returns, but less than sensitive to world citizens. They’re becoming a firm to dislike- will public backlash against Apple intensify?

For all of these firms making these QA/Ethical violations, silence would have been a golden alternative. But that’s just no longer possible.

Wanna Run? Wanna Hide? Didn’t work well for African or Middle Eastern Dictators when educated, connected citizens discovered their voice. Corporations ought not get too smug, either; covering up those lil’ ethical or QA missteps is getting tougher. And public backlash is ever-more clever & persistent.


Steven Litt