Stockholm Syndrome: Capitalism Edition

As big brands try to curry favor by rolling out “solutions” to problems that they themselves help create, it’s time to rethink capitalism.

Jan 24 · 4 min read

Ever had the sneaking suspicion that the corporations you hate have trapped you in an endless buying cycle?

You’re confronted with sobering stats about the effects of smartphone addiction on mental health, but your phone’s the first thing you reach for in the morning. You’ve watched that documentary about the true cost of fast fashion to the environment, but you can’t resist those $10 yoga pants. You’re appalled by the piles of waste generated by single-use plastic, but you still get your coffee to-go in disposable cups and your food delivered every day. You fully understand how algorithms are designed to harvest your attention online for profit, but you feverishly refresh your Instagram feed.

Why does the captive start falling in love with the captor, who suddenly seems so indispensable and necessary for survival? Why do we hate how brands use and treat us, but keep going back for more? Consider this: your brand loyalty and relationship with monolithic corporations might actually be a version of Stockholm Syndrome.

First, big brands lure you in with the product and create the illusion of scarcity, making you feel like doing without it isn’t an option. And then, when you’re finally held hostage, even the slightest act of generosity will get the company in your good graces (see: corporate social responsibility and activist ad campaigns). In time there’s some scandal or controversy with clear evidence that the brand is causing unnecessary harm to reap immense profits — but you remain loyal through it all, even feeling friendliness where there should be fear, admiration where there should be contempt.

This is one of the most despair-inducing aspects of Stockholm Syndrome: in the end, even after being released, the captive defends the captor.

Various scholars and experts have tried to put a finger on why. A book on surveillance capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff here, an explosive Medium article on Capitalist Stockholm Syndrome by Umair Haque there. Trouble is, we often don’t even realize we’re being held hostage. The recently viral, user-generated “10 Year Challenge,” where people post then-and-now photos of themselves on social media, is actually an astroturfed meme to train Facebook’s facial recognition capabilities, speculates Kate O’Neill from Wired. In 2009, you logged into Facebook. In 2019, Facebook logs into you.

Worse yet, brands themselves admit they aren’t good for us — it’s one of the ways they keep us in line, so to speak. Apple wants to help curb your iPhone addiction with Screen Time, a new feature that breaks your smartphone usage down to the specific apps in the hopes of motivating you to spend your time differently. Cigarette conglomerate Philip Morris International just embarked on an anti-smoking campaign as part of their vision of a smoke-free future. And in what sounds like a headline from The Onion, Coca-Cola and other junk food giants in China have successfully been funding the narrative that exercise — not cutting down on sugar — can fight obesity. They use their role in creating “solutions” to problems in which they, themselves, are complicit to generate positive PR, reeling us right back in.

Why, despite all this, do we remain brand-loyal? In the 2018 dark comedy Sorry To Bother You, union organizer Squeeze explains, “If you get shown a problem but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.”

There’s also nobody else for us to go to. A protest sign spotted at the 2019 Women’s March highlighted the fact that that there’s more public trust in gas station sushi than in President Trump, which isn’t a total exaggeration. Amazon and Google beat political parties and the state government as some of the most trusted entities in an American Institutional Confidence Poll conducted online by YouGov in 2018.

In recent years, capitalism’s sheen has (finally) started fading. Today only 19% of Americans ages 18 to 29 identify themselves as “capitalists”, and the trend goes hand-in-hand with the rising popularity of the Democratic Socialist values espoused by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

This week marks the start of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, attended by hundreds of the world’s most powerful leaders. The United States’ Trump, France’s Macron and Britain’s May could not make it because they are busy tending to crises at home with big economic implications — the partial government shutdown, Yellow Vest protests and Brexit. It behooves the meeting’s attendees to acknowledge that our economic systems are in serious disrepair, and that rapidly rising income inequality is a feature, not a bug, of late stage capitalism.

So how do we ensure that we don’t fall prey to Stockholm Syndrome yet again, making new excuses and justifications for the next generation of brands as we wrestle free from the mega-corporations that control so much of our lives today?

As we enter the fourth industrial revolution, we need to reconsider the role and purpose of the corporation on our planet, and weed out the put-up-or-shut-up variety of consumerism. In his new book Prosperity, Colin Mayer of Oxford’s Saïd Business School offers a new definition for private companies: “Producing profitable solutions to problems of people and planet.” Will we keep condoning the harm that some corporations inflict on society and the environment, or will we demand that they do more, do better? It’s time for the captive to thwart the captor.

This post was written by Shivani Gorle with thinking contributed by Brendan Crain. ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio in New York City’s Flatiron District. Find us on Twitter.


ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio with an artful perspective


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ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio with an artful perspective