Wokeness and Stakeholder Capitalism

What is wokeness when offered by a company as a brand enhancement to attract customers?

Following Thorstein Veblen and Abraham Maslow, I would describe “wokeness” as an intangible status good, permitting buyers to feel better about themselves.  Something like a country club membership or dinner at a trendy, but expensive restaurant.

The good provided by “wokeness” to a purchaser is, more than a little, a self-serving boost to the buyer’s self-esteem.  Separately, it may also provide a public good of advantage to the community.  But where self-interest drives the decision to buy, beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.  Different buyers will have different utility curves on the marginal advantage to each of the goods – both self-enhancing and community-enhancing – that “wokeness” provides.

Veblen defined “conspicuous consumption” as buying what is observed by others in order to impress the rest of society through the manifestation of the buyer’s social power and prestige, be it real or perceived.  In other words, Veblen explained, social status becomes earned and displayed by patterns of consumption, rather than what the individual makes financially.  Such consumption provides “signifiers” for public display of special, more exclusive and privileged status.

Whatever signals our status as respectable and virtuous has always been a status good within the community we seek to impress.

But as the saying has it, “one person’s garbage is another person’s treasure.”  Customers have differentiated utility curves of personal satisfaction and different marginal utilities for each additional dollar or Euro they have or don’t have.

Thus, when companies sell “wokeness,” they may only attract some in the market for status goods.  The market may be large or small, mass or niche.

The website, ZeroHedge, recently described how entertainment companies misjudged market acceptance of the “wokeness” products:

Entertainment Companies Start Dumping Woke Content as Viewership Tumbles

By Tyler Durden
Sunday, August 7, 2022

They’ll never admit to it openly, but getting woke makes companies broke.  Hollywood has been overtly progressive for decades, but this is nothing compared to the social justice invasion since 2016.  After around five years of an unprecedented leftist onslaught on the entertainment industry, we are finally starting to see the rampage lose oxygen.  There’s a weakness within woke productions that the alternative media has been pointing out for a long time – they don’t make a profit because they are designed to appease a minority of leftist zennials that don’t have any money.  This is the wrong crowd to rely on for cash flow.     

It is fair to say that the entertainment industry was partially conned.  First, there are those tantalizing ESG loans that can be easily had, as long a company loudly declares their fealty to the social justice agenda.  Then, of course, there is the fact that many corporate CEOs and marketing people track Twitter trends with the ignorant assumption that Twitter is actually a reflection of the real world.  The woke mob on Twitter is amplified by the company itself, while most contrary voices are stifled and buried.  Anyone using the Twitter echo chamber as a marketing gauge would be led to believe that leftist ideology is the prevailing ideology of the nation.  It’s not even close.

Some companies are finally realizing this fact and are taking action to reduce their exposure to woke content, or otherwise perish from loss of viewership.  Here’s the thing – leftists could take over every platform for media distribution (they almost have), but they still can’t force the public to consume woke content.  Eventually, the loss of viewers and profits is going to hurt their bottom line.

Warner Media (now owned by Discovery) seems to be on the forefront of the purge of leftist content.  Under chief executive David Zaslav, Discovery is aggressively dissecting Warner to understand why a company with so many iconic brands and franchises is continually failing at the box office and on streaming.  Zaslav is now dumping far left content like the poison it is.

Most notably, Zaslav was behind the torching of news service CNN+ after less than a month of operation when it utterly failed to pull in subscribers.  Now, he has shelved the $100 million ‘Batgirl’ movie, a woke travesty with woke directors which test audiences hated.  He is also reportedly cutting the impending Supergirl movie, which rumors indicate was designed to replace the beloved Superman franchise with a female version played by a race swapped actress of Colombian descent (the original Supergirl is supposed to be white and blonde).

Another event that shocked leftists was Netflix taking an ax to “First Kill,” a lesbian vampire series that no one asked for and apparently no one watched.

This was after Netflix canceled a host of woke programming in the past couple of months, including a show called “Anti-Racist Baby,” written by well-known Critical Race Theory propagandist Ibram X. Kendi and another animated show called “Q-Force” (Queer Force).

HBO Max recently canceled their “Gordita Chronicles” after only one season.  The show, based on a Dominican immigrant family, heavily pushed leftist narratives of victim group status and depicted America as a racist and oppressive nation.  No mention of the fact that millions of non-white people try to sneak into the U.S. every year, even though it is supposedly “bigoted.”

The examples of purged woke programming go on and on.  This is a smart move by the entertainment media, as audiences make it clear with their dollars and their viewership that they don’t want to watch leftist garbage.  However, is it too little, too late?  

Some companies, like Disney, have chosen to foolishly double down on woke content (after numerous box office failures) and others, like Warner, have lost a lot of goodwill from their customers.  Corporations and marketing people have long sought to entice customers by researching what audiences want.  But, the new model is to simply TELL customers what to buy and shame audiences into compliance with a product if they don’t like it.  Since 2016, the strategy of media has been to ATTACK customers in response to criticism, rather than listening and learning.  This hasn’t gone over well.  Today, these businesses are paying the price for their trespasses against the free market.

It is unlikely that they will be able to win back audiences anytime soon, if ever.

The August issue of Newsweek in the U.S. has a long and somewhat breathless article on “The War on Woke,” with the sub heading of “As a growing number of companies adopt liberal causes from abortion rights to racial justice, conservatives are fighting back.”

It would seem from the article that consumer sentiment over cultural and political narratives is divided.  There is no consensus as to what should be believed or must be done.

Geeze – turns out “wokeness” is just like all the other consumer products and services on the market.  Some like Dove soap and others like Bee & Flower sandalwood soap (which I buy when I am in Bangkok).  I like whisky and you like beer.  Who is to judge which is better in the eyes of the cosmos and eternity?

Then, there is the case of competition over more or less “wokeness.”  One Jeremy Boreing, after the company Harry’s, maker of men’s shaving gear, took his ads off their site for being wrong-hearted and “inexcusable,” started his own business competing with Harry’s.  Now consumers have more choice in the market for shaving gear.  In two months, Boreing’s new company sold 63,000 shaving kits.

New “conservative” investment funds are being started which will mimic “progressive” activist shareholders in forcing managements to adopt points of view.  The new social activists are, apparently, pressing companies to focus on profit or at least to refrain from seeking to the change the world as progressives would prefer it to be.

The Free Enterprise Project is buying shares in companies so that it can attend shareholder meetings and ask difficult, upsetting, questions.  William Flaig has started the American Conservative Values exchange traded fund.  He has $30 million in assets.

There is a new conservative “shame and blame” public ranking of companies according to the degree of their objectionable “wokeness.”  The PublicSq. app says “It’s time to stop buying from companies that hate you.”

Professor Valentin Haddad of UCLA is quoted saying: “The initial stage of corporate activism is coming from the Left, and now there is pushback from the Right.  Are companies gaining more from the Left or losing more from the Right?  That’s their debate.”

Maybe old-fashioned, tried and true marketing focus groups would be useful?  Companies need to discern where customers are and what they want over a range of intangible moral and political utility curves.

Levi Strauss brand president Jennifer Sey resigned after she got targeted for being too political in her personal advocacy.  Her work associates accused her of being “anti-science, anti-fat, anti-trans and racist.”

It reminded me of the Cultural Revolution in China, where if you were not sufficiently “red” in mind and heart, you were ostracized and possibly “compassionately” sent to re-education camps to get your personality in line with party orthodoxy.

Maybe capitalism, in this new age of self-actualization and seeking of prestige and status goods, will become more like pluralistic politics – endless arguments among factions, each seeking to have its will drive the dominant narrative for society?

An article by Scott Shepard reports:

Encouraging reports indicate that the more sensible of the states have finally begun to confront not only the leftist takeover of corporate boards and executive suites, but against the attempts by the modern malefactors of great power – Larry Fink and BlackRock, Brian Moynihan and Bank of America and the rest of that crowd – to dictate American economic and social life under the banner of ESG.

Things are moving quickly.  Just recently Governor DeSantis announced a “flat ban” against investing Florida state or pension funds in ESG-involved investments.  West Virginia Treasurer Riley Moore listed the firms, including BlackRock, with which West Virginia and its subsidiaries would no longer do business because those companies continue to block their investors’ capital from flowing to reliable-energy producers in the name of climate protection.

As the AGs wrote in a letter to Fink last week (in response to a letter from BlackRock’s Chief Client Officer Mark McCombe to many of their states), “Mr. McCombe posit[ed] that BlackRock is agnostic on the question of energy and merely offers investing clients a range of investment options in the energy sector.  But this claimed neutrality differs considerably from BlackRock’s public commitments which indicate that BlackRock has already committed to accelerate net zero emissions across all of its assets, regardless of client wishes.”

To prove the point, the AGs quoted BlackRock to itself, by way of the commitment of the Net Zero Asset Managers, on the steering committee of which BlackRock sits: “BlackRock has committed to ‘[i]mplement a stewardship and engagement strategy, with a clear escalation and voting policy, that is consistent with our ambition for all assets under management to achieve net zero.”

“Well, a small fraction of our investors appear to want you to follow political decarbonization schedules, according to the ESG nature of their investment, but most just want to maximize value, taking into account all possibilities, including the very great likelihood that net zero can’t be accomplished at all without unbearable detriment to the value of this company and to the economy and stability of the world.  So, on balance, we must, in fidelity to our fiduciary duty, urge you strongly against aligning yourself with any political-schedule decarbonization plans.”

That is manifestly not what BlackRock is doing.

The AGs gave BlackRock until August 19th to reply to their letter and explain its actions fully.

Welcome to the brave new world of selling political and cultural status goods, where there will be winners and losers, just like in old fashioned, private market-driven capitalism.