flaneur in pajamas

A Few Thoughts on Corporate Loyalty

Why does society scorn the underdog?

I remember when they started printing the large warning on coffee cups:

Warning: Contents Hot.

Occasionally this was re-stated with more intensity:

Contents Extremely Hot.

And occasionally with more levity:

Careful! The beverage you’re about to enjoy is very hot.

Do you remember the “hot coffee” suit against McDonald’s? Back in 1994, it was decried as frivolous, and people still bring it up today as an example of the outrageous lengths consumers will go to in order to shirk personal responsibility and / or wring money from innocent corporations. Stalwart defendants of corporate honor have even gone so far as to create the “Stella Awards,” a series of awards named after Stella Liebeck, the woman who sued McDonald’s. The award’s purpose, according to the creator’s website, is to highlight “any wild, outrageous, or ridiculous lawsuits,” suggesting that “opportunists and self-described victims” are out to sue “any available deep pockets.”

Of course, it’s not like the website actually prevents any of these suits from happening—its main effect is just to shame the award’s namesake and any who imitate her. What baffles me is, why? Everyone loves cheering for the underdog—and what’s more underdog-like than an individual going up against a multinational company?

It turns out, though, that most people don’t know how much of an underdog Liebeck actually was—a seventy-nine-year-old who sustained burns on nearly a quarter of her body, some of them third-degree—badly enough that part of her genitals actually fused to her leg. The skin graft treatments took eight days, and follow-up treatments took two years. She missed $5,000 in income and her treatment cost more than twice that. And it’s not as if she went deep when she sued a deep pocket: while she was initially awarded 2.7 million by the jury, she hadn’t asked for it; her lawyer initially sued for only 18,000 (McDonald’s had responded by offering 800). And the 2.7 million awarded by the jury was never paid; Lieback eventually settled with McDonald’s, two years after the incident, for less than 600,000.

But the case is still held up for ridicule; it’s part of our pop-cultural shaming. Everyone knows about “that woman who sued McDonald’s for making coffee hot after she spilled it all over herself,” and the case has become a synecdoche for frivolous lawsuits / wacky news-stories / moral decline in general.

Like I said, you’d think people would cheer David over Goliath, but they don’t—they’re firmly on the side of the multi-billion-dollar industry. And I have to wonder if the ridicule with which people responded to the McDonald’s suit is symptomatic of a society tied to and loyal to its rulers, like a peasant defending a queen who is in fact responsible for that peasant’s serfdom.

It’s the stuff of chivalry, of course—not “chivalry” in its strict gendered sense, but in the sense of ritually expressed loyalty and subservience. History and folklore are full of commoners who pledge allegiance to their lords, without, apparently, ever realizing that the lord is the author and sustainer of the feudal system that creates the commoner. Even if the royals oppress the subjects in subtle ways (or in ways so accepted as normal as to be invisible), the populace’s general appreciation of more readily-visible bread and circuses creates a loyalty that goes beyond merely obeying or not rebelling, and instead extends to a psychological and emotional allegiance.

Corporations, I suggest, are our new royalty—the perceived source of our prosperity, of our epic narratives, of our aspirations. Our heroes have gone from being faceless legends of oral tradition, to blister-packaged action figures based on the motion picture, to the actual CEOs behind that motion picture—not Odysseus, and not even Luke Skywalker, but George Lucas. Apple fanboys are precisely that—fans of Apple, the corporation, not of a specific product. Chevy enthusiasts bear that cross even when the company produces a dud—because the company’s narrative is more important than any single output, which makes all those window stickers of Calvin pissing on Ford worthwhile.

In 1381 it made sense to shame your fellow peons if they made trouble with the aristocracy. An uprising, while theoretically beneficial for people like you, could be disastrous if the peasants didn’t pull it off. The reprisals of an offended king could be brutal, so it made sense to protect the king—his stability was yours. Today, I think, we see a similar kind of thinking. We’re not afraid Ronald McDonald will punish us for suing—but we do see pundits claiming that frivolous lawsuits will spell the death of free enterprise, and thus the end of prosperity as we know it. Raise a ruckus, they say, and regulation will ensue; from there it all goes downhill for all of us. I suspect, though, that this market-based explanation is merely justification for a more deeply-seated impulse, one that exists apart from any awareness of market forces: we’re loyal to businesses for reasons that are at once more abstract and more immediate than economic extrapolations. We’re loyal because we’re in love.