Virtue Marketing

Businesses are playing at ethics on social media, and you shouldn’t become a pawn.

Striving for normal in 2020 has been thus far a vain endeavour.The unjust killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has shifted attention away from the conventional Pride Month hubbublicity. So, naturally, corporate community managers had to get in on the action.

They spared no expense: formulaic messages of support [1], affirmative action discounts [2], and so on.

In recent years every time an event or a trend with political relevance comes to the fore, you will inevitably see the same thing happen: Virtue marketing.

Businesses will publicly express their undying support for a cause they likely see as a passing fad they can bank on, or engage in programmed shoutouts from a list of yearly hommages.

The only interest of businesses with this tactic is that it could and does attract more customers if these businesses stand on the right side of a given political issue. Call it a sleazy, social media oriented take on Corporate Social Responsibility; it reeks of easy opportunities for branding rather than real ethical commitment.

Major companies’ response to the death of George Floyd has been no different. Whether they behave in accordance with whatever principles they claim to uphold, whether they support the causes in question the other 95% of the time is, to them, largely irrelevant. No, in times of peak interest for a particular issue, it matters only to score as many points as possible, so that businesses can not only appear virtuous but also earn consumers through that virtuous appearance.

Admittedly, there has been a more serious push for morality and company ethics. For years, we have witnessed or participated in public exhortations for corporate entities to care less about pure profit and more about taking active ethical stances in broader society. Companies themselves have also made strides towards the ideal that their for-profit nature is not their sole guiding purpose. Corporate Social Responsibility is one such stride.

As for companies’ public personas, the ball is still up in the air. Mission statements, corporate philosophy, values, principles, purpose… Some of these feature moral tenets (Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto, for instance; they’ve since re-evaluated the importance of that stance), but it is unclear whether they have any practical application or binding force. For instance, since 2019 and the entry into force of the Loi Pacte, French companies have been able to include a raison d’être in their mission statements, principles that the company abides by and that it will purposefully allocate real means to uphold.

In other words, companies are incentivized to give themselves a virtuous role to play; set aside economic incentives and cloak themselves in odds and holy writ. This ongoing campaign for ethical business, which combines incentivizing righteous behaviour on the supply side (ethical production) and the demand side (consumer activism) is, all things considered, an embryonic work in progress. 

Unfortunately, the result of this miserable, wild-eyed toddler-waddle towards actual progress is a veritable cornucopia of blatant hypocrisy and cynical corporate profiteering. Let’s have a look.

One June 1, Blizzard published a message supportive of BLM and their protests against police brutality [3], and even suspended the account a World of Warcraft player for a whole century for disrupting an in-game protest in support of BLM [4]; contrast this with banning a professional Hearthstone player in October 2019 for announcing his support for the Hong Kong protests during a live competition [5].

The NBA has a similar record; silencing voices supportive of the Hong Kong protests one day [6], then supporting Black Lives Matter the next [7]. Obviously, this is in no way a self contradiction.

Even a franchise so venerable as Star Wars is not above this sort of base manipulative tactic. While official social media accounts today express their whole-hearted support for ending racial equality in the US, their marketing and distribution has systematically modified promotional material intended for Chinese markets. The biggest casualty of these changes was John Boyega, a major star of the trilogy whose space on promotional material was heavily downsized [8] to accommodate Chinese audiences -not known for their love for black actors [9, 10]. At the end of the last sequel trilogy film, a background, barely perceptible lesbian kiss was removed in post-productions for some international releases [11, 12, 13].

To be fair, it would take too long to fully discuss Disney’s overall record when it comes to juggling between entering profitable foreign markets (ruled by authoritarian governments) and trying to keep up appearances that they are the friend of all causes righteous.

To be even fairer, they’re neither the only offender, nor the worst or the most damaging. The list is long and you probably have many more examples in mind, particularly companies that sell material products built in deplorable conditions or using environmentally taxing methods. That is a tale for another article.

What concerns us here is not so much the fact that companies have for the most part rough track records when it comes to being ethically consistent, because at this point it’s almost a given. Rather, it’s the evolution of companies’ social media presence into the realm of the personal and personable. The most successful example of this trend to date has been the Twitter account of fast-food chain Wendy’s [14], and it likely opened the door for more banterous, snarky, sassy community management since then.

It’s all fun and games until the personable social media personas make it easier to sell the espoused morality of a business. Just because a company’s public presence online makes them seem more human does not mean, and should not mean, that they have suddenly also become more humane.

It’s wonderful that companies want to start behaving ethically, but it seems they think ethical behaviour includes these public displays of sympathy that appear more like ruthless marketing strategies, a fashionable, bankable substitute for ethics.

Don’t expect businesses to be beacons of the moral outrage du jour. Should they advocate righteousness, don’t take your moral cues from them.


  1. “Brands and Organizations Share Messages of Support for George Floyd”, Schuman, Nicole, PRNews, June 1, 2020
  2. “Uber Eats ends delivery fees to Black-owned restaurants”, Radio.Com, taken from MSN Lifestyle News, June 6, 2020
  3. Activision Blizzard tweet in support of Black Lives Matter, Twitter, June 1, 2020
  4. “World of Warcraft player banned for ‘interrupting in-game BLM protest’”, Rose, Erina, SausageRoll, June 11, 2020
  5. Blitzchung controversy, Wikipedia
  6. “How one tweet snowballed into the NBA’s worst nightmare”, Valinsky, Jordan, CNN Business, October 11, 2019
  7. “The NBA is not afraid to lead on social justice”, Garcia, Ahiza, CNNMoney Sport, February 19, 2018
  8. ““A torture for the eyes”: Chinese moviegoers think Black Panther is just too black”, Huang, Echo, Quartz, March 12, 2019
  9. “Chinese state media hits back at claims of racist ‘Star Wars’ poster”, Griffiths, James, CNN, December 9, 2015
  10. “15 Movies That Made Drastic Changes For A Chinese Audience”, Loffhagen, Matthew, ScreenRant, March 13, 2016
  11. “‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ Same-Sex Kiss Cut in Middle East”, Ritman, Alex, The Hollywood Reporter, December 19, 2019
  12. “Star Wars lesbian kiss scrubbed from ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ in Singapore”, Bowden, Ebony, The New York Post, December 26, 2019
  13. “Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker’s Same-Sex Kiss Wasn’t Cut For Chinese Release”, El-Mahmoud, Sarah, CinemaBlend, December 19, 2019
  14. “Behold: The sass master behind Wendy’s Twitter”, Gallucci, Nicole, Mashable, January 5, 2017

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