How Corporations Humanize Themselves to Justify Political Spending
It’s your birthday. You log onto Facebook and read, “Happy Birthday” in big letters accompanied by a picture of an animated cake. You watch a deodorant commercial about ending the wage gap. You might even eat some fries from McDonalds with a rainbow decorated box for LGBTQ+ pride weekend. Surely, these acts don’t feel all that personal. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t wake up with your birthday circled on his calendar in bright red sharpie and McDonalds isn’t inviting you to any gay pride parade. These examples reveal a larger pattern: corporate involvement in our personal lives posing as concern for social justice.
Corporations of course have more power than just producing commercials or tracking their users’ birthdays. They play an overwhelmingly dominant role in our neighborhoods, elections, legislation and job market. Take the city of Seattle for example, home of Amazon’s main headquarters. City officials in 2015 declared a state of emergency regarding homelessness with rises in housing prices disproportionately displacing black and Latino families. And if gentrification wasn’t spelled out already, landlords went so far as to even advertise they would prioritize Google, Microsoft, and Amazon employees over other tenants in the area.
In 1971, with so much influence and cascading societal effects, the Committee for Economic Development declared that corporations take on a “social contract” between society and business. The idea being that because corporations function with the consent of the state, they have the moral obligation to be accountable to the public interest rather than just to the products they’re pushing off the shelves. Corporate social responsibility looks different to every company, but its goal is to contribute to the welfare and interests of society.
But when did these mega companies shift from corporate social responsibility to corporate social justice? Nike made Colin Kaepernick the face of their “Just Do It” campaign with the message, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” In 2017, Pepsi aired a commercial portraying the tension between protesters and police officers which was taken down after immense public backlash for trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement. And this year, Gillette released a short film commercial addressing toxic masculinity.
These commercials aren’t just stirring current national issues. They are the latest maneuver to personify corporations. At the end of the day, these are profit driven multi-billion dollar companies. They are appealing to the ever increasing progressive millennial cohort; the goldmine of consumerism. Nike is not lobbying for criminal justice reform and Gillette Razors isn’t trying to dismantle the patriarchy anytime soon.
Sure, these commercials amplify positive dialogue and reach mass audiences, but they are ultimately creating the facade that corporations are monolithic entities, capable of feelings and opinions. When we personify them we give them social power, and this leaks into the bedrock of American politics.
But what transcends when the personification of corporations enters the legal realm? When corporations humanize themselves, the big money they pour into politics is justified under this rationale: If humans can spend money as free speech, why can’t corporations?
The personification of corporations has been the foreground issue in a myriad of U.S. Supreme Court cases and legislative acts dealing with campaign finance laws and the first amendment.
President Nixon signed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) requiring the full disclosure of funding for federal candidates, political parties and political action committees (PACs). FECA was amended in 1974, 1976 and 1979.
Following the Watergate scandal and corrupt campaign financing under the Nixon administration, Congress amended FECA and placed strict regulations on individual contributions and party spending. This amendment introduced the first ever public financing system for presidential elections under the Revenue Act and mandated the disclosure of political contributions exceeding $100. Congress also established the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent regulatory agency to enforce campaign finance laws.
The Supreme Court case of Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 really put a foot in the door for corporate political spending. The court upheld that limiting direct contributions to campaigns was constitutional for it served the government interest in a “narrowly tailored” way to safeguard the country from disproportionate control by corporate money. However, the court found that independent expenditures, or independently spending money for a campaign, is indeed constitutional and is protected by the first amendment as freedom of speech. In other words, they had no right to be limiting campaign speech (monetary contributions) by individuals, groups, and candidates.
Although PACs have been around since the 1940s, Buckley v. Valeo allowed for them to flourish. A PAC is a way for individuals, corporations, labor unions, and ideological interests to raise money to promote a certain candidate.
Later that year, Congress gave a uniform contribution limit to all PACs and made it illegal for any corporation or labor union to donate to PACs directly from their treasuries. So, this was good in theory. In reality, soft money still found loopholes to flood federal campaigns.
Due to an incredulous amount of soft money in general elections all throughout the 1990s, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) in 2002. This was intended to limit soft money and made it mandatory that party spending had to be hard money, or regulated money. Donations made by individuals, PACs, or political parties that are regulated by the FEC are an example of hard money.
And finally, we reach the famous Citizens United v. FEC supreme court case of 2010, which futher paved the way for corporate creed in American politics.
Perhaps the most notable outcome to arise from this case is the court deciding there could be PACs with no contribution limitations as long as they do not coordinate with the campaign party. And with this, Congress begat the super PAC, colloquially referred to as PACs with an unlimited funding and spending power. Corporations and labor unions can take funds directly from their treasuries and contribute to a super PAC. Super PACs are paramount to the discourse surrounding big money in politics today.
So what does it look like when corporations and billionaires have the option to spend unlimited amounts of money toward super PACs? Look no further than the 2016 election. As reported by, Opensecrets.org, the 2016 election for both presidential and congressional elections totaled $6.5 billion dollars.
With outside political spending rapidly escalating, it is natural to question the state of our democracy. When corporations and the top 1% befuddle legislation with millions of dollars in lobbying and special interest groups, we shift more and more to a corporatocracy, where the masses and 99% are left unaccounted for.
When corporations beguile the public by producing advertisements centered around social justice issues, they attempt to represent corporate interests as congruous with public discourse. In doing this, corporations are humanized and depicted as dealing with the issues the general public does, only with billions of dollars at their disposal.
Commercials like Gillette’s toxic masculinity advertisement only serve to justify the narrative that corporations are people. It is a meticulous effort to normalize political and social corporate involvement such as funding federal elections.
While many of these corporate advertisements touch upon impactful issues worthy of dialogue, let us not forget the intentions behind them. It is time the American public insists on transparent campaign finance laws and makes the disclosure of outside spending expenditures mandatory, as well as fights for the abrogation of super PACs.
Corporations are not people, people are people, and protecting billions of dollars toward campaign financing under the First Amendment is detrimental to the American political system and the people it serves.
Jessica Dresch is a sophomore Culture and Communication major who is feeling the Bern for the 2020 presidential election.