As someone who has worked the majority of his life in the charity sector, I have both been encouraged to work with the Private Sector, and have always watched with interest how many businesses exploit their relationships with charities to shirk their ethical responsibilities or mask their otherwise questionable activities. Everyone has different ethical standards and personal missions, but for me, the strongest one has always been against the Nestlé corporation. It is Nestlé who, again, have got my blood boiling, and whose new charitable partnership with WWE called the ‘Nestlé Waters Challenge’ was the final catalyst for an article which has been stewing for some time.
In a now infamous tweet from 2015, WWE’s Chief Brand Officer, Stephanie McMahon admiringly quoted Twitter co-founder Biz Stone from an interview with WWE’s Michael Cole in which he said ‘Philanthropy is the future of marketing, it’s the way brands are going to win.’ This of course laid bare the rationale for any charitable work WWE engages in, and it engages in a lot. Now it’s important not to be so over-zealous in your in your analysis of these activities that you denounce meaningful charity work like Make-a-Wish, which all of the wrestlers seem to enjoy, or even the positive elements of the shadier partnerships they are involved with, but knowing that WWE’s charity work is a branding decision as opposed to a moral one certainly puts it in a different light. Of course, this strategy of Corporate Social Responsibility is by no means unique to WWE, and is indeed the norm for big corporations, but as WWE is a brand I have dedicated a lot of time to, and is one which is now engaging in unconscionable practices, they will be the focus for the most part here.
In retrospect, while I have been snide about many of WWE’s corporate practices in the past, it is only now – far too late – that I have started to be appropriately disturbed by them. They have always been bad, but between emerging partnerships and announcements regarding them seemingly snowballing recently, they are now verging on cartoon baddie status.
Tackling cancer is obviously a very worthwhile cause, but where good causes are, there will always be some unscrupulous people willing to profit from a cottage industry, and in charity terms, unfortunately, ‘cancer awareness’ has become the most bloated cottage industry going with Susan G. Komen being a poster-child of the worst of it. ‘Komen’ have been accused of about every bad thing a charity can be accused of, from marketing products and policies which are linked with causing cancer, to backing industries they receive donations from, to ‘Pinkwashing’ – focusing more on selling merchandise than actually trying to cure cancer, while keeping much of the profits for themselves. Despite this, possibly because more respectable charities won’t go near wrasslin’, WWE chose to partner with Komen to get skin in the charity awareness game, promote the charity, and enable them to do more damage. The best you can say for WWE is that they were ignorant of the dark side of Komen, didn’t care to consider it, and went ahead as a business decision, not caring about the ethics of it.
I have written extensively about my cynicism regarding the merits of the armed forces, and my nausea with celebrating them too much. That said, I understand that it is natural and sincere for many people to want to celebrate them, that there isn’t anything terrible about corporations like WWE doing so, and that often it is the troops that are the real victims of the military-inductrial complex. What is terrible, however, is the money which changes hands when corporations celebrate the military, and the fealty that is required in return. WWE is by no means alone in this; the NFL is just as bad if not worse, taking vast sums of taxpayer money to promote the US military. While veterans are spat out of the military to lives of PTSD, financial struggles, and problems to re-integrate in to life without the military once they have served their purpose, the military has an insatiable appetite for recruits. The US military is desperate for bodies, and it drives them to recruit youngsters, play to false notions of patriotism, and use the platforms of major corporations to spread propaganda for them. So corporations like the NFL and WWE promote the importance of the military, the apparent ‘freedom’ they secure, and also programmes like Hire Heroes, which helps gets veterans in to work. Again, I won’t pretend that Hire Heroes is a bad thing, but what it is, is a shoddy clean-up effort, a tacit admission of guilt and of the problem at hand, and a solution that amounts to a drop in the ocean that they hope will absolve them in the public eye. It’s the equivalent of burning someone’s house down, buying them a sleeping bag, and expecting a thanks. What makes support of these military-linked charity partnerships so uncomfortable is the blatancy of the quid pro quo. The military pay corporations like WWE to promote them and absolve them of their sins.
This theme is repeated with WWE’s new Nestlé partnership.
But before I get to that, there is another WWE business decision which doesn’t really count as corportate social responsibility, but has thematic links, and that’s the elephant in the room: WWE’s ongoing contract with the Saudi Arabian royal family. There are much better explanations of the crimes of Mohammed Bin Salman and the Saudi monarchy elsewhere, but in short, the ruthless evil of a state which is bombing and starving their poorer Yemeni neighbours and brutally murders critical journalists is an evil which is impossible to defend. What Saudi Arabia would like to do, however, is have you forget about it, and they have some ideas for how to do that. One is to pay WWE outlandish amounts of money to put on a series of stadium-sized house shows there to contribute to a cultural whitewashing of the oppressive state and to add a (thin) veil of cultural progressivism to the rulers there. There’s talk of letting the women wrestle over there in the name of ‘progress’, but that hasn’t materialised yet, and increasingly, this seems a hollow carrot dangled above the WWE superstars who make the trips there to make the whole thing seem less greasy. That said, there are some superstars – Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, and more, who are conscientiously objecting, but it should be many more. WWE are so ashamed of what they are doing that they don’t even refer to the country the shows are in when they promote their broadcasts on the WWE Network, and they should be ashamed. Unfortunately, they are not ashamed enough to hand back the cash. Again, their partnership is a straight exchange of money for good PR, but there isn’t even any hint of charitable activity this time.
When WWE entered in to this disgusting arrangement, that should have been enough for me to stop watching, but to my shame, it wasn’t. It has taken until now for me to speak out (for what that’s worth), but when I saw that WWE were entering in to a PR clean up campaign with Nestlé, that was the equivalent of a punch in the stomach to me. To be extremely clear: Nestlé are evil. Nestlé has caused the death and hardship of millions. Nestle is everything that is wrong with corporations. It is a company which owns and operates a huge amount of brands to engage with, from foods, to hygiene products, and are very hard to avoid consuming, but I have been trying my best to for years now after learning about their practices. Again, many more have written better and in more depth than I will, but if you can think of any unethical corporate practice, Nestlé have done it with incredulity. Most famously, their promotion of their baby milk formulas in developing countries where poor sanitation made the process lethal to many babies, and their bribing of doctors there to push their products on mothers is perhaps their most infamous scandal, killing as it did, babies. That is just the tip of the iceberg though, and again, please seek out detail in more depth, but Nestlé have also practiced child labour and trafficking in their chocolate production in the Ivory Coast; systemic pollution; forcing famine-stricken Ethiopia to pay them a ‘debt’ of $6 million; promoting mis-labeled products as ‘healthy’ when they are not; and of course, good old fashioned price fixing and tax avoidance. What led us here though is another of their major scandals: their bottled water business practices.
There are so many rotten layers to this it is almost hard to follow. Two days ago, WWE announced they were ‘teaming up’ with Nestlé for their ‘Nestlé Waters Challenge’, a ‘campaign’ which aims to get people to choose healthy options and choose water. Fair enough. But wait, Nestlé are the ones selling you water. In fact for them it’s a multi-billion dollar business. And wait, not only are Nestlé selling you the water, but more accurately, they are selling you back water which they have effectively stolen from the public. The Nestlé water business model is a simple one: they pay next to nothing to monopolise what should be public water with the promise of jobs and economic benefits in return (but which rarely materialise), and then sell the public back their own water in a Nestlé branded bottle. They have outwardly said that they don’t believe access to water is a human right, and they practice what they preach, repeating this model in whatever vulnerable communities they can find with water springs. They do it all over the world: in Nigeria, in Pakistan, and in Michigan. In Michigan, the state where Flint is and which hasn’t had safe drinking water in years, Nestlé hog the only safe water around, and sell it to the desperate residents. In this context, Nestlé encouraging you to ‘choose water’ is transparently disgusting, and WWE providing a friendly platform for them to do so, is equally as bad.
Again, WWE is helping whitewash the crimes of an rotten organisation, helping characterise Nestlé as the friendly corporation which wants the best for you and your health while they steal your water behind your back. WWE are again, for money and exposure, aiding and abetting Nestlé’s evil, and are again using a charitable promotion as the very thinly veiled vehicle to do so.
I may write soon about my current hiatus from watching wrestling, but this relationship with Nestlé may make my hiatus permanent, at least for WWE.
The idea for this article has been bouncing around in my head for some time now and from a slightly different angle from the arguments above, so I will move away from the WWE microcosm of the problem now to talk about some other phenomena.
As discussed earlier, a big driver for corporations to do charitable work is pure PR, which is really a form of marketing themselves as a kind company who you should want to give your hard-earned money to. ‘Pinkwashing’ was discussed earlier, but perhaps the cause which has become most linked with this, to the point of parody, is LGBT Pride. Pretty much every organisation, and every product going, displays the rainbow during Pride month. There are positives to this of course. Seeing people engage with that throughout the month helps remove stigma and make people feel more accepted, or more able to be themselves, and that is undoubtedly a good thing. It is important though that you don’t mistake the gestures of brands as friendliness. If there was no money in it, far fewer would bother to do it. Selling a pride version of your product is still selling your product, and the financial benefits of this are inconsistent at best. If a company says they will give a certain proportion of profits to an LGBT charity, they still take a share, and even if they give all profits charity (which is a rarity), it’s a tax write off for them which gets you in their place of business. In the grand scheme of things, this is not the most egregious form of corporate social responsibility, but it is nevertheless to be wary of, and audited when you consider engaging.
There is another element to this kind of corporate social responsibility, where companies sell a product and donate some of their takings, and it’s that it’s not really them donating the money, is it? At best, they are curating your donation. They decide who that money goes to, not you, and what’s worse, they get the credit and good PR for their ‘donation’, not you, the customer. This is what I mean by the slightly tongue-in-cheek use of the term ‘stolen valour’ – that the power and presence of large corporations allow for them to undertake seemingly charitable endeavours, profit from it, and take the credit for the money flowing from their customers with them as a middle man. Think of whenever you go in to a McDonalds or a KFC. There are always little boxes for your change that goes towards their charitable foundations. Aside from the same old story of fast food companies ‘investing’ in healthy food programmes by way of apology for serving addictive and unhealthy food to children, those customer donations go some way towards funding their charitable endeavours. Now i’m not naive enough to think that the change from your Big Mac alone funds these causes, but it certainly subsidizes them. Now again, the work of the Ronald McDonald house, for example, is good and valuable, but they are there with your support, while McDonald’s gets to pat themselves on the back and get forgiven for their promotion of unhealthy foods.
There has also been another recent trend within Corporate Social Responsibility which is even more transparent as sheer marketing – the ‘engage to be good’ model, if you will. I first saw this with an infamous charity tweet (though not so infamous that I can properly remember it or find it online) along the lines of ‘1 like = 1 meal for a hungry child’. While donating a meal for such little effort seems like a nice gesture, the tone of the tweet betrayed the intent – i.e. you were being held hostage, and the company will only give the hungry kid a meal if you engage with them. It was roundly lambasted at the time, but amazingly, not enough to kill the trend. Just last week, the makers of the film Aladdin started a twitter campaign whereby Disney would donate $5 for every public post including the hashtag #FriendLikeMe. Cool right? Yeah, except #FriendLikeMe refers to a song in Aladdin and is accompanied by a custom emoji of Aladdin whenever posted. Twitter users were literally being asked to help promote the film in return for a donation to Make-a-Wish. Disney would in fact only make the donation if you first promoted their film. Now of course, there will be benefits as a result of this campaign, but we mustn’t treat this as a selfless act. It is blatant emotional manipulation for profit, and unfortunately, it is a trend that we are just used to now.
So why does this matter? In cases like #FriendLikeMe, maybe it doesn’t matter all that much – its the least we can expect from corporations; that every good deed comes with a price, but that it doesn’t really harm anyone. Even if that’s true, I think it’s important to be cognizant of it – be aware of what your engagement with these campaigns do and consider if you really support it. Always remember, as well, that it would be far more effective to just tax these corporations effectively and let the state decide where their money goes, rather than corporations doing a small amount themselves instead and getting a tax write-off for it. In cases like the WWE and their legitimising of Nestlé though, there should be no forgiveness. The top brass of these companies don’t care, but especially in WWE’s case, they have high profile faces that they link to these campaigns, and they might. I think it’s important to let them know the implications of what they are lending their faces to and if they still want to do it. Also, frankly, if you are boycotting Nestlé, it may be time to extend that to it’s partners, like WWE. I’m lucky in that I was already on a self-imposed hiatus, rather than a boycott, but when that hiatus is up, a difficult decision will have to be made. I don’t believe I will ever pay for their Network again though, at least while they are in league with Nestlé.
From the point of view of someone who works for a small charity, I would suggest the following. Firstly, investigate what the corporation is trying to achieve in their charity work – it won’t always be something ethical. Secondly, if you want to support a cause via a corporate campaign, at least look in to where the money is going – it won’t always be to an appropriate place, even if it’s masquerading as a charity. Thirdly, related to that, if you want to support a cause – research it, and choose who you want to support directly – you don’t need a corporation as a middle man, taking a cut for themselves and choosing for you. Finally, and perhaps with some bias – small charities are facing a tough time now, and are always reliant on income. While larger charities do fantastic work, they don’t always need your donation as much as your local, hard-working, coal-face organisation does. Find out what small charities are around you, and if there is one you like, consider offering them your support instead. They will likely never have the pull to benefit significantly from corporate input, but you can always help.