‘Corporate Allyship’ Changes Absolutely Nothing
From meditation app Calm donating to mental health on behalf of Naomi Osaka to brands flying rainbow flags for pride month, corporations will seize any opportunity for cheap publicity
Last week, number one tennis player Naomi Osaka refused to attend a post-match press conference. She released a statement on Twitter explaining that she wouldn’t continue to put her mental health at risk to satisfy the press. She was fined $15,000.
In the furor surrounding both sides, she then posted another message to say she was withdrawing from the French Open altogether.
People had thoughts. There were supporters who said mental health should come above some boring post-match interview that nobody really cares about. There were those who said it was simply part of the job to be harangued by reporters after a loss. (You can probably tell which side I’m on.)
And then, weirdly, brands also had thoughts.
Nearly all the brands who sponsor Osaka as well as some totally unrelated ones weighed in on her side, releasing statements to show their support. I’m talking Mastercard, Nike, TAG Heuer, Nissin Foods, Nissan, All Nippon Airways, Workday, and Sweetgreen. The salad company! They also thought that Osaka had a right to her mental health.
The coup de grâce was when Calm, a company that produces meditation products, donated $15,000 in her name to a mental health charity in France. They also pledged to pay the fines of any other players who opted out of Grand Slam media appearances, matching each of those with another $15,000 donation to Laureus Sport.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. Jarett Wieselman called it “most excellent.” Jay Williams said he was officially “the biggest fan” of the app. And Twitter user Shawn said they were downloading the app right now thanks to this big move.
I was impressed, sure, but more by their savvy ability to capitalize on an athlete’s fame and publicity to promote their own product. At the end of the day, everything a brand does, no matter how well-meaning or good, is primarily to make more money. In the era of brands also trying to become our friends, stealing our memes, and exuding rainbows from their very pores on June 1–June 30, I was suspicious.
What does “corporate allyship” even mean?
It’s an odd month for me to be thinking about brands trying to show their #solidarity. I’m bi myself, so I’m sensitive to brands showing up with pride flags all over their logos and selling rainbow-flavored merch while doing nothing to protect me from harassment or discrimination.
I’m over it, to be honest. It’s performative.
To show just one illustrative example of corporate Pride hypocrisy, AT&T frequently bandies about rainbow everything during my birthday month but donated $2,755,000 to 193 anti-gay politicians. It’s crappy.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad that brands have done the mental arithmetic and decided they’re more or less happy to lose their homophobic customers to court the LGBTQ+ community, but it still reeks of pandering. These companies, as Roxane Gay put in her tweet below, will adorn their 100% cishet c-suite and board in rainbow flags, without making any meaningful change.
And to me, Calm pledging to donate money on Naomi Osaka’s behalf, as well as any other players who bow out due to mental health issues, feels like a similar sort of vibe. I also couldn’t help but notice that while Osaka weathered a good deal of criticism for her move to protect her mental health, Calm has received plaudit after plaudit.
I’m tired of brands inserting themselves into real issues that affect people
Brands are not people! Brands should not pretend to be people or to be affected by the very real issues that real people face. It’s not cute. That goes for LGBTQ+ rights, and it goes for mental health, too. I don’t care that Calm is donating $15,000 once and potentially more times. They didn’t do it for her. They did it to increase subscriptions of the app.
Naomi Osaka was fined $15,000 because she did not want to compromise her mental health to be accessible to invasive post-match questions. Calm jumped on the brandwagon. To me, that’s just another instance of a brand using a very genuine, very vulnerable, very human moment, to call attention to themselves and make some money.
Let me remind you, Calm is a company valued at $2 billion. It’s been profitable since 2016. In just the first half of 2020, they spent $12.6 million on ads, excluding social. Their coffee budget probably exceeds $15,000.
For that matter, what’s stopping them from donating $30,000, $45,000, or even $150,000 to the organization right now? If they’re ready to back their pledges, they may be expecting players to take advantage of their offer. Why not preemptively donate?
It’s because it’s not about the money they could easily spend. It’s not the player they believe in. It’s an opportunity to get good, cheap press, to be applauded on the back for being a brand and actually doing something, for raising the bar slightly off floor level.
Isn’t mental health worth more than a brand’s pocket change?
I was startled to find out that legally, corporations have to put their shareholders’ interests above anything else, like their employees, the environment, or, of course, civic duties.
“[C]orporate case law describes directors as fiduciaries who owe duties not only to shareholders but also to the corporate entity itself, and instructs directors to use their powers in ‘the best interests of the company,’” writes Lynn Stout, professor of corporate law at Cornell.
In other words, you should frame everything companies like Sweetgreen and Calm do within those terms. Look at that paltry $15,000 donation again with that context. I can’t help but see it as a cheap bit of publicity, built off the back of a tennis player who’s endured a lot already.
Many people will say that Calm (and the #Pride-happy brands) are doing their part to steer us into tomorrow.
But you know what? I don’t dream of corporations helping us build a better society.