Don’t be embarrassed; to some degree or another we all participate in Corporate Pornography. In fact, it is not always a bad thing; it can be harmless fun and entertaining, if practiced responsibly and in moderation. But it can also be harmful and corrupting.
Good old-fashioned “Pornography” existed ever since humans began to depict their everyday activities with drawings on cave walls. How many of us, with hand on heart, can claim never to have been tempted to flick through a nude magazine, sat through a “XXX” film or wandered round a porn website or two? With the exception of extreme pornography, which is despised and frowned upon by the predominant majority of responsible people, mild or soft pornography has generally been overtly or covertly tolerated as a harmless part of adult life.
So, what’s Corporate Pornography? You may well ask! First, let’s define the familiar term “pornography” on its own. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is:
“Printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement”
And Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as follows:
“Movies, pictures, magazines, etc., that show or describe naked people or sex in a very open and direct way in order to cause sexual excitement”
Wikipedia defines it in very much the same terms, but it recites paragraph after paragraph with a lengthy lecture on the subject most of us don’t need or care to read about. Interestingly though, the word turns out to have been derived from Greek and it relates to prostitution.
“Corporate” however, is derived from the Latin “Corporatus / Corporare / Corpus” which basically means forming into a body, in this case a commercial body such as a company.
So, how did I bring a Greek-based word relating to contrived sexual arousal with a Latin-derived word meaning commercial business to make a phrase worth writing about? First, I will borrow from the three reputable sources above and attempt to define “Corporate Pornography” thus:
“Any communication material such as annual reports, press releases, newspapers / magazine features, or websites that depicts workplace activities in an explicit and direct way intended to stimulate the recipient and cause corporate excitement”
All companies like positive publicity, it is called marketing and it is recognised as an integral part of corporate activities. Companies need to explain in positive terms what they do in order to attract and keep customers by all legitimate means; that’s expected and largely healthy. Just like we all agree that two people court one another, get together, occasionally get married, have sex and produce babies; after all, this is what life is all about.
However, sometimes we go beyond the commercial focus and indulge in either creating false publicity or seek popular attention in order to cause vacuous excitement about our company. This is Corporate Pornography in its simplest form.
Legally speaking, there is nothing wrong with Corporate Pornography, unless it is adjudged to be misleading or designed to gain unfair advantage etc., which would make it “Hard Core Corporate Pornography”. However, many of us are tempted to indulge in reading about “Corporate Pornography” or participate in it even though it is occasionally done in bad taste.
I am sure there are many activities that can be considered Corporate Pornography; I list below my top 5 examples to illustrate this phenomenon.
- Annual Awards: The Oscars equivalent of various industries. Clearly, there is no such a thing as the “Best Business Person” or “The Most Promising Entrepreneur” or even “Car of the Year” and all the superlative titles given to such false categories. All of these awards from Architecture practices to Zoo parks are contrived to make us read about, watch or attend events at expensive dinner galas packed with industry members and journalists waiting for the final exciting reveal which every year is described by the head of the selection committee to have been “very difficult and close run thing”. The winners collect their trophies and proudly display them in their cabinets, with many inch columns written about the event in the media. Does the whole charade make any difference to what we do and how we do it? I have my doubts.
- Staff Incentives: This is not about performance related bonuses designed to set challenging targets for staff to meet or exceed. I am talking about the in-house version of the above “Annual Awards”, whereby staff are labelled as “Employee of the Year”, “Customer Services Star”, “Most Valuable Team Player” and so on. Winners are given cash, travel vouchers, glass paperweights, or just a certificate saying they are wonderful people. I know that for every delighted person who receives such an award, there are many others who think it is biased, unfair, patronising or just worthless. However, it is an opportunity to bang the corporate drum, draw attention to the company and put a positive gloss on proceedings, especially in publications and websites.
- Motivational Retreats: This is the proverbial team building exercises that take us away from our neglected families for a weekend to forge team spirit or to imbed in us some core value the company wishes to bring out because it will make us more productive, more loyal or just better human beings. Actually, some of these outings can be very enjoyable and fun to take part in; I wish we would just admit that the purpose is to have fun and leave it at that. I very much doubt they are as valuable as the people behind the initiative claim them to be. In all cases, many pictures are taken and used in company Intranets or public websites showing staff making a raft out of empty beer cans, leaky huts from tree branches, or scenes of overweight middle aged men and women scaling hillsides while being screamed at by psychotic ex-army instructors. We never ever find out for certain whether these activities make material difference to the company business in the long-term. Far from team building, I once won, by luck I might add, a clay pigeon shooting competition, resulting in one supposedly crack shot senior director to come second in spite of the fact he had his own gun and wore the right outfit for the occasion. He never forgave me and I gained his ever-lasting resentment.
- Loyalty Programmes: Open the average wallet / purse and you will find enough plastic cards inside to cause an environmentalist a heart attack. Some of the cards are bankcards but most are a variety of loyalty cards. We are issued these hateful things and encouraged to accumulate “points” to be redeemed at a later stage. This I believe started with airlines and bled on to supermarkets. Now there are whole industries built around this concept. When you really look at the actual value derived from such “point” accumulation it is pitifully limited and the restrictions on redemption are quite staggering. They will have us believe that these points are like real money; they most certainly are not! Money can be redeemed for goods and services unconditionally and without time limit, while points give you neither advantage. However, we are addicted to them, hanging on to the belief that they give us special privileges where in fact we get very little true value in return.
- Publicised CSR: This one is by far my pet hate! Corporate Social Responsibility always existed; we just did not call it that until the last few years. Of course there are philanthropists in every walk of life and the world is a better place for the existence of those who recognise that there are less fortunate people than themselves and feel compelled to do something about it. In most cases, but not all, these individuals give and act discreetly without seeking publicity. However, some set up charitable foundation in their names largely to attract others to the cause they care about, nothing wrong with either approach. What I personally find distasteful is when a company embed their CSR into their Annual Report, websites, marketing material, and almost every press release they issue because they truly believe CSR is a marketing tool and if it happens to help save a tree, clean a river, feed a family or educate a poor but talented young person then, that’s just a bonus. For example, hotels have turned economic imperative into a virtue by printing glossy cards which they place in your bedroom and bathroom declaring that due to their immense care for the environment they will not replace your towels or bed sheets unless you specifically ask them to, hence placing the responsibility squarely on your shoulders to feel guilty should you choose to demand fresh towels and sheets because water shortage is entirely your fault. Another example is companies who make a song and dance about paying for their carbon footprint generated by their total business air miles but make little or no attempt to restrict their unnecessary travel. Worse, they actually use the said accumulated air miles on their frequent flyer cards for free private travel with their own families! If it were not tragic, it would be hilarious.
So, where is the problem with any of the above? Strictly speaking, there is no problem to the extent that there is no problem provided we don’t confuse “real love” between two people with pornography, which is mechanical and designed to excite a sexual reaction for recreational purposes or as a substitute for the real thing. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with Corporate Pornography provided we distinguish it from the genuine corporate responsibility of maintaining and promoting the true values of a company business like caring about the actual products / services we offer, the customers we serve, the people we employ, the shareholders (small or large) who entrusted us with their assets and finally, the communities and environments we inhabit.