Category Archives: Corporations

The Delightful Contagion of Public Expression

This story is a few months old but I hadn’t told it to anyone until last week, when I realized it’s funny enough to be worth sharing and that it requires photos to tell properly, so here goes.

Back in February, in the midst of one of the coldest, snowiest winters I can remember, I was in serious need of some inspiration when I went to my neighborhood mailbox and found this sticker:

2015_2_6 Bway box

I took a photo because I had gone to send music about activism and corporate campaigns to a fellow organizer, and I knew she’d be amused. I also took it as a sign that I was living in a great neighborhood, on the west side of Providence, Rhode Island.

Crossing from the west side into downtown Providence means crossing an interstate on one of the overpasses that are dotted along its length every few blocks. Many of these bridges have water stains, graffiti and other markings, so I probably would have missed it if I hadn’t been on foot, but in the spring I spotted this incredible piece of public art:

2015_6 Washington overpass

If you can’t tell from the photo, the water stains at the bottom are natural formations, but the painting above reproduces the same pattern with dramatic effect. It stopped me in my tracks with pure joy, and also provoked a great exchange with a cyclist who noticed me photographing it while he was stopped at the red light.

This anonymous blessing reminded me of the mailbox sticker and made me want to contribute to the fun. By this time, the sticker had been removed and/or painted over, so I resolved to replace the message. I can’t paint but I do have a decent printer, so I printed the photo and put it inside of a magnetic plastic sleeve, which I stuck on the same side of the box where the sticker used to be:

2015_7 magnet

It was small but legible when standing next to the box. My hope was that someone would be inspired as I had been: perhaps the person who originally posted the sticker would see that it had been appreciated, or someone new would see the message who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. I chose a magnet intentionally to be impermanent; I didn’t want to create clean-up work for anyone but I was curious to see how long it would stay in place.

Not only did it stay for nearly two months, the first time it rained someone adjusted it to protect it better from the rain. I had slapped it on a bit crooked, but someone clearly straightened and centered it, making the slot on the side less exposed to the elements:

2015_7 straightened

…and that’s my story: anonymous public expression inspiring more of the same. On one level, it’s a laughably small thing to do, but at the same time, it felt like a reminder from the universe (or my neighbors) that everything we do matters. Every day we have the choice to inspire each other and lift up the beauty around us. I truly hope I can find more opportunities for public art, humor and silliness in 2016 – and I’m more convinced than ever that Providence is a great city to do it in. Continuing across to the other side of that overpass, you will find this gem:


I rest my case.

The Corporate Emperors Have No Clothes

Since the US Supreme Court lifted restrictions on corporate political contributions in its 2010 Citizens United ruling, concerns about corporate political power have been growing in this country. And not just among activists: the vast majority of US voters across the political spectrum believe that corporate money is a major threat to our electoral process. As a 20-year veteran of corporate campaigning, I share these concerns, although the focus on election spending strikes me as overly narrow. Political spending is only one of the ways corporations influence our policies and our very perceptions. From junk science to revolving door relationships to PR and outright ownership of the media, the threat is real, but it is not new.

Citizens United and the rulings that preceded it rest on the legal extension of “personhood” to allow corporations to usurp citizens’ Constitutional protections, with little of the accountability. In 1911, Ambrose Bierce defined a corporation as “an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” Today’s transnational giants wield exponentially more wealth and power – political, economic, legal and cultural – but Bierce still holds a critical insight: corporations aren’t persons, but their beneficiaries are.

One of the most important precedents for Citizens United was the 1978 Bellotti case, in which First National Bank successfully challenged state restrictions on corporate political spending by means of a First Amendment claim that such spending constituted protected speech. Of course a bank doesn’t have opinions, it represents the interests of its owners and managers: that is who gains extra access and extra representation under this legal regime, through their association with this fictional “person.” If First National, now Bank of America, were a person, it would have been locked up years ago for mistreatment of its employees, customers, competitors, regulators, and the communities in which it operates. This list chronicles the bank’s dozens of fines, settlements and misdeeds since the financial crisis and bailout. And those are just the legal infractions, it doesn’t even capture BoA’s environmentally destructive investments and its equally destructive pollution of our democratic process.

Of course if Bank of America were a person, it would be hard-pressed to find a safety net equal to the 2008 bailout. The fact that we are incarcerating, disenfranchising and abandoning our fellow human beings at heartbreaking and globally unprecedented rates while these serial offenders continue their rampage virtually unchecked should give us all cause for outrage. Unaccountable elites have hidden behind the corporate shield for generations. Granting political rights to structurally amoral, profit-seeking organizations corrupts one of our most important mechanisms for protecting the public interest and pursuing progress. Government of, by and for the people may be an unfulfilled ideal, but moving toward that goal requires a movement that encompasses a breadth of creative strategies and forms of activism. Whether we’re building local solutions, challenging specific harms or building toward broader policies like a Constitutional Amendment, it is we – the human persons on whose consent this government exists – who must make the rules.

I’ll end on a hopeful note because I truly believe in the power of organized (human) people. Do yourself a favor and check out Twice Thou’s the Bank Attack, written for a national protest against Bank of America and starring inspiring organizers from City Life/Vida Urbana, which is fighting back against foreclosures and building strong communities in Boston.


America the Credulous

The annual Superbowl has become the best time of year to hear public discussion about advertising, something I wish we could be more critically aware of year-round. This year’s focus was Coca-Cola’s multi-lingual rendition of America the Beautiful, celebrating the nation’s demographic and geographic diversity. Racist and xenophobic backlash online predictably generated the best kind of publicity for Coca-Cola; one NBC anchor declared: “Coca-Cola has always been about inclusion. And they clearly know how to get people talking about their brand.”

Some commentators observed that Coca-Cola is not “about” inclusion, it is about selling its products. But a disheartening number jumped to defend Coca-Cola and applaud its message. A commercial message: a strategy to associate Coke with patriotic multicultural values. At a cost well over $4 million, the ad’s aesthetic or social value is secondary. Its purpose is commercial: an investment in a brand.

The clip’s message is clear: the US encompasses a beautiful diversity, but what unites us all is Coke. Calling Coca-Cola an ally in the work for justice and equality requires tremendous feat of amnesia. Not long ago this corporation held the record for the largest racial discrimination settlement in U.S. history. Coca-Cola doesn’t have feelings or opinions, inclusive or otherwise. It is a corporation, not a human being. No advertisement should lull us into attributing motives other than profit to an institution bound by law and structure to prioritize its own perpetuation and growth. No marketing angle will change Coke’s labor violations and ongoing racial discrimination, or hold this corporation accountable for its global abuses.

so many examples...
so many examples…

Coca-Cola hasn’t cornered the market on hypocritical advertising. Take, for example, recent appeals to feminist values like the Pantene series which flies in the face of parent Procter & Gamble’s corporate track record of gender discrimination and sexual harassment of female employees, not to mention its funding for reactionary and anti-gay political candidates.  Marketing statements don’t signify a policy or commitment of any kind. Often the same corporation promotes different messaging around its male-targeted brands.

Information on corporate practices is easily available, there’s no excuse for relying on ads and misinformation for an impressionistic view of the corporations that dominate our media and consumer landscape. It’s satisfying to stand up to misogynist or racist backlash, but we should avoid adding fuel to the fire which seeks to burn away the corporation’s track record and actual practices in a blinding crucible of positive associations. By provoking the trolls, Coke and Pantene hope to summon our (brand) loyalty by provoking the bogeyman on the right. Personally, I get enough of that at the ballot box. I’d rather hear corporate actions speaking louder than ads.