Feeling Blue?

Are you feeling blue today? (Note: conditions may vary depending upon language stated)

Blue in English informally means "sad"

Blue in German (blau) informally means "drunk"

Blue in Swedish (blå) informally means "naïve"

Blue in Latvian (zils) informally means "gay"

So, which blue are you?


Market Correctness and Corporate Nomenclature

Let me begin with the story of a corporation that just wanted to be whole again. And who wouldn’t want that, considering that corporations are just people too! The tale begins in 1870 with the founding of Standard Oil by John D. Rockefeller and others. Through fierce competition and by circumventing strict state laws regarding chartered corporations (Standard Oil was originally an Ohio corporation) through acting as a trust and registering in less restrictive states, Standard Oil gained a huge market share. It paid off; in 1890 Standard Oil controlled the flow of 88% of all refined petroleum in the United States—a near total monopoly. But this same fateful year a law was passed—the Sherman Antitrust Act—which empowered the federal government to go after firms that operated as monopolies or cartels. It did so with a vengeance years later when the Supreme Court ruled in Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States that Standard Oil sought to act as a monopoly and restrain trade and commerce in petroleum and that therefore it must be broken up.

Like a group of orphans shunted off to different foster families following the death of their parents, 34 new companies emerged from their former parent corporation. These were largely centered in one state or region and included: Standard Oil of New Jersey, Standard Oil of New York, Standard Oil of California, Standard Oil of Indiana, Standard Oil of Kentucky, Standard Oil of Ohio, and the Continental Oil Company, among others. Don’t recognize any of these? Well, like children, as they grew up they began to assert their individual identities. And just like a person can change his/her name, a corporation can too! So, by the mid-to-late 20th century, Standard Oil of NJ had become Exxon, Standard Oil of NY – Mobil, Standard Oil of CA – Chevron, and Standard Oil of IN – Amoco. As the years went by, a sort of family reunion began to occur; Chevron acquired Standard Oil of KY as well as the unrelated Texaco, while Standard Oil of Ohio and another Standard sibling named Atlantic Petroleum were reunited as part of BP. But the biggest of these reunions transpired in 1999, when Exxon and Mobil merged to form ExxonMobil, which followed in its parent corporation’s footsteps by becoming the world’s largest corporation by market capitalization in 2006.

As I once said, “names have power.” And the intangible and mutable nature of names means that this power can be twisted very easily to selfish and destructive ends. In the little tale I wove above, I another strain of “market correctness” can be detected. In the days of yore, corporations had to be chartered by a state or local government, and would have a name that reflected either the nature and scope of their work or the name of their founder. The breakup of Standard Oil came because its monopolistic and anti-competitive behavior was harming the common good. The names assigned to its successors stipulated not only their origin (from the corpse of their parent corporation), but that they were meant to have a more limited scope, geographically and in the marketplace. I believe that the gradual abandonment of their original names in no small part facilitated their reunification. For example, while the merger of Exxon and Mobil into one of the world's largest and most powerful corporations raised some eyebrows, just think of the public indignation if that merger had been between Standard Oil of New Jersey and Standard Oil of New York.

This is a trend that goes far beyond the petroleum industry. The United Fruit Company is rightfully known as a particularly brutal and corrupt corporation—commonly called el pulpo ("the octopus") in Latin America, the firm massacred up to 2000 striking Colombian banana plantation workers in 1928, led the effort to overthrow democratically-elected President Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954, and paid millions of dollars in bribes to Honduras' military strongman president in the early 1970s. Yet, few outside Latin America remember this today since United Fruit became United Brands and finally Chiquita Brands in the 1980s, with a light-hearted image of a fruit-bedecked woman as its logo. Had Chiquita remained United Fruit, I suspect they would have a far more difficult time in the marketplace.

Perhaps the most egregious recent example is the transformation that Philip Morris underwent last decade. With mounting public opposition toward the tobacco industry in general and Philip Morris in particular, a PR strategy was needed to revive the declining profitabilty of the brand (and ending the negative practices in which the firm was engaging was, of course, out of the question). Philip Morris USA had already been trying to diversify its portfolio, acquiring Kraft foods (and all of its brands and subsidiaries) in 1988. But this was not enough to halt the damage caused by the brand's reputation. Thus, in 2003, Phillip Morris Companies created and fell under the umbrella of the Altria Group, effectively giving birth to its own parent. The name, derived from the word for "high" in Latin, was coupled with a new logo that is nothing more than a rainbow checkered square. Both of these were meant to emphasize the diversity of products offered by the reformed Philip "Altria" Morris. The ploy seems to have worked—despite a dip during the financial crisis, revenue and stock prices have generally been on the rise since the rebranding.

All of these related tales communicate to me the superficiality of our age as language becomes more euphemistic and meaningless. The malleability of the English language is facilitating corporations to use their command of it to deceive us and profit from our ignorance. If nothing is done about this, profits will continue to rise for these corporations, but the common good will suffer further. To stop this, we of course need to challenge and end the dispicable notion of corporate personhood. But that is a difficult structural battle against which the vast moneyed interests will fight tooth and nail. Another part of this is fighting for the survival of the English language by rejecting market correctness. Whenever someone says "Chiquita," you say "United Fruit." Wherever someone writes "ExxonMobil," you write "Standard Oil." And whenever you see an Altria logo in all of its nondescript blandness, draw a big old cigarette over it in permanent marker. It's the volid thing to do, and more importantly I think, the societally beneficial thing to do.