MNCs and Personhood: Can We See through the Blurred Lines?

The Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886) Supreme Court case in the United States established the legal personhood of corporations and paved the way for a friendly environment in which MNCs emerged over the next century plus. That has led to a United States where corporations have great influence in society and face little accountability – only buoyed by another Supreme Court case, Citizens United vs. F.E.C. (2010) which allowed for virtually limitless corporation spending in elections based on the freedoms they enjoy as “people”.

This offers much to discuss, but I want to focus on another element of corporate personhood. That is, the tendency by MNCs displayed en masse to attempt to “humanize” themselves. This tendency is further perpetuated by the Internet age where social media and popularity of “viral” videos permeate society. Examples of MNCs operating in this field can be observed in how MNCs choose to participate in holidays like the very recent April Fool’s Day and in the way their social media presence has developed and evolved. Each year, countless MNCs engage in April Fool’s gags often involving the unveiling of a fake new product and marketing campaign to come with it. The real marketing comes from the viral potential of these pranks that garners attention and – as the MNCs hope – good will from the public. While these attempts often backfire, it is clear the idea behind participating in April Fool’s Day is a bid to foster a more personal relationship between company and consumer. The same can be said when considering how MNCs have trended in their social media presence. Especially on Twitter, there has been a trend for MNCs with an account to adopt a humanized persona when tweeting. Rather than using “we”, the first-person “I” is being used more often as accounts attempt to strike a similar tone to individual Twitter users. Wendy’s and Netflix consistently achieve viral moments through this new approach to MNC social media presence.

While these accounts are certainly amusing at times, it is important to understand the real intention behind them. As we know, MNCs bottom line is about profit – and how to maximize it. This approach to marketing is an attempt to blur the lines between company and consumer. If we see Wendy’s as the funny and relatable Twitter account rather than the huge fast food corporation it really is (and all the unseemly activities that come with that distinction), we are likely more inclined to frequent Wendy’s. We should thus view these tactics with skepticism and consider how appropriate engaging with MNCs online is when it is clear the sole purpose is to get us to spend more money and continue to act as loyal consumers.

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