Selling Our Pride: should businesses get involved in politics?

This article was also published in On Dit Magazine, Issue 85.4

Last month, Coopers Brewery copped heavy backlash for its partnership with The Bible Society, over a video about marriage equality. The video, produced by the Bible Society, featured Liberal MP’s Andrew Hastie and Tim Wilson debating the already beaten-to-death pros and cons of marriage equality, over a light beer provided by Coopers.

Within the course of a few days, a boycott of the beer had been put into effect via social media, several pubs stopped serving it in protest, the video was pulled offline (though a transcript is still available), Coopers issued a statement defending their right to “keep it light” and then, when that didn’t have the desired effect, they released an apology and a video statement in support of diversity. In all, it’s not a very compelling case for businesses to get involved in politics. In fact it seems to have hurt more than helped Coopers.

Even more interestingly, just days after the controversy, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton claimed that big businesses were being “bullied” into supporting marriage equality. He then followed those comments by suggesting that businesses should stay out of social issues (unless it pertains to tax systems or job creation) or resign from their company to pick up a career in politics if they really want to get involved. I’m personally confused why he cares about the backlash businesses are getting for their political stance when he’s of the opinion that businesses should be apolitical in the first place, but I digress. And look, other than the fact that the same-sex marriage debate has been rehashed a thousand times over, the video in question wasn’t very offensive. It presented both sides of the argument respectfully, and though the “keeping it light” catchphrase seemed a little trivializing, not everything has to be serious all the time.

But all of this controversy does raise some prickly issues. Namely: Should businesses get involved in politics? Moreover how much do we actually want businesses, well, in our business?

As “socially responsible consumerism” increasingly becomes a trend world-wide, and we all look for fair-trade, anti-animal-testing companies to give our money to, there’s a growing expectation that businesses will share our political opinions and donate to our causes, and it seems to be warping our social movements.

At the time of its inception in the 70s, Mardi Gras was a protest movement. Police forcibly broke up the first march and arrested over 50 people. Now, the Sydney Mardi Gras is a source of tourism for the state, attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators, including the members of major political parties. The last Mardi Gras boasted 12,000 participants and hundreds of floats sponsored by both community groups and businesses- Cooper’s Brewery among them. With so many pulling on the pride march’s purse strings, some of the most pressing issues facing the LGBTQI community (violence against trans women, the plight of LGBTQI asylum seekers, and the high rates of suicide, addiction, domestic violence and homelessness, to name a few) are swept aside to focus on marriage equality, the political hot-topic of the moment. The issue selling beers.


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Mardi Gras: Then and Now. (Images via mardigras.org.au)


The fact that we all get so bent out of shape over a video we don’t agree with while thousands of more tactful political advertisements meant to sell us a product sneak through our social media feeds, is telling. Bank of Australia, for one, recently released a commercial as part of its sponsorship of the Sydney Mardi Gras, which encouraged same-sex couples to “keep holding hands” in the face of adversity. It was moving and thoughtful, and gained less than a tenth of the attention that The Bible Society’s video did. Because it’s the kind of thing we have come to expect from businesses.

And while I have no issue with businesses having and expressing opinions on all manner of political topics, we consumers sometimes don’t acknowledge the fact that companies prioritise making money. In a world of viral videos and ethical consumerism, visibly supporting social movements is good business, and this can mean that we leave our politics open to appropriation by companies who don’t actually “give back” to the movements they are stealing from. Pepsi’s tone deaf commercial featuring Kendal Jenner springs to mind, as do the dozens of “feminist” slogans printed on t-shirts by companies who don’t actually help fund domestic violence shelters or girls’ educations or any other real feminist enterprise.

In the end, this isn’t a question about whether Cooper’s had the right to fund that Bible Society video. Of course they did. It’s their money and they can spend it however they want, just as the consumers and businesses who boycotted their product have the right to spend their own money how they want. Frankly, Dutton calling it “bullying” while also suggesting that CEO’s “stick to their knitting” is both ridiculous and confusing.

But their right to get involved doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be taking said involvement with a grain of salt, and thinking hard about whether it’s actually useful, or even ethical, to give so much attention to companies in the public debate. How can we expect social movements to work for real change when they are busy making their politics attractive to investors?

Because the thing is, that video, outside of its controversial debate topic, existed primarily to promote The Bible Society, and sell limited edition Bible Society branded Cooper’s beers. Companies like Coopers make bank off tough social issues under the guise of “raising awareness,” and we turn their commercials viral.

So, should businesses get involved in politics? Sure. Why not? But personally, I’d like to enjoy my beer without wondering whether it’s a Homophobic Lite.

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