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Public Image Ltd.

The corporations we love to hate


Dear Sir: I received the recent memo about your concerns over the media portrayals of corporations in the past year. I'm glad to have the chance to address this matter, and commend your creative use of profanity as a motivational tool. Granted, massive transnational conglomerates, such as ours, have gotten a few black eyes in the realm of popular entertainment, but I doubt we'll see any lasting damage.

Certainly some of the portraits have not been terribly flattering. The documentary The Corporation starts by taking a perfectly good U.S. law -- that businesses have the same rights as individuals -- and oh-so-cleverly asserts that, if big companies were people, they'd have psychopathic personalities. (I'm sure they're not referring to you personally, sir.)

I don't appreciate being compared to a remorseless sociopath any more than the next man with a corner office. And it's unfortunate that the film finds so much evidence to support its view, from the way our corporate brethren have patented genetically engineered mice to ways that they profited from the Sept. 11 disaster.

But The Corporation was only one of numerous pesky documentaries that seemed to proliferate like those WTO protesters that keep disrupting your vacations. In Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock becomes McDonald's best customer by eating nothing but its food for a month. When Spurlock's health takes a nosedive, however, McDonald's doesn't look so good.

In The Yes Men, anti-globalization activists play jokes on some of our fellow companies. When one of the pranksters tells a corporate audience that international outsourcing is much more cost-efficient than outright slavery, he's making a joke at the executives' expense. (I fail to see the humor, too, sir.)

Equally disturbing was the way that certain films criticized our eager participation in the political process. The remake of The Manchurian Candidate shows a company inserting mind-control technology into a presidential candidate's head. The movie, however, acts like this is a bad thing.

Fortunately, most of these films weren't major moneymakers. And given how the 2004 presidential election turned out, the public seems to be on our side.

Some films even acknowledged that our corporate values are unavoidable. I Heart Huckabees demonstrates how easy it is to co-opt environmental activists by simply offering them free T-shirts or handshakes with celebrities. (The film gave me plenty of ideas for our next PR campaign, sir.) An award-winner at the Sundance Festival, Primer tells the story of two white-collar entrepreneurs who make a time machine in their garage. Then, following a quite admirable predatory impulse, they tamper with the fabric of time in an effort to maintain control of their invention.

In addition to what's going on in these films, there is other evidence of how our influence is spreading. On TV, shows dealing with business methods and corporate structures abound. There's that British sitcom "The Office," where Ricky Gervais' boss character is nearly as funny as you are, sir. Then, there's HBO's "The Wire," which ostensibly, is about complicated drug deals and police procedures, but proves rich with business models. Police department brass treat crimes not as individual tragedies, but almost as commodities to be manipulated and controlled. It's similar to the way our middle managers must sometimes get creative in order to meet their quotas, sir.

I'm personally heartened at the example of one of the show's main characters, Stringer Bell, played by Idris Elba. Before his untimely death, he applied what he learned at his community college's night school business classes to the cocaine trade. He rejected bloody turf wars over territory, telling his men, "It's about product, motherfuckers, product." (You might want to quote him at your next board meeting, sir.)

Lastly, consider the popularity of "The Apprentice," the NBC reality series where would-be executives compete for the pleasure of working under Donald Trump. Trump has brilliantly found a way to make prime-time entertainment out of the way we treat employees. The fine art of assigning demeaning tasks, backstabbing co-workers, and abusing underlings now constitutes "must see TV." Another bonus of the show is that now, when our middle managers tell downsized employees, "you're fired," they can explain that they're not being cruel, just trendy.

What all of this means is that we don't have anything to worry about. Sure, some movies and TV shows have mocked companies like us. But believe me, sir, you and your fellow CEOs will have the last laugh.


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