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Yesterday, I discussed a billboard, sponsored by Nike, of boxer Manny Pacquiao. The billboard showed Pacquiao on his knees praying in the corner of the boxing ring. Underneath the image was the caption, “Just Do It.”
The billboard, I believe, illustrates the extent to which corporations attempt to influence ideological views of the people. More precisely, as I’ll explain, it illustrates the opposite—how little corporations do to try to influence ideological views. That is, the billboard shows how, in ideological matters, corporations are more followers of their customers than leaders. At the end of this post, I’ll describe some academic research, showing how this principle is especially true in the news industry.
On this poster (which I’ve also posted to the side) you can see the image that was on the billboard. Note, however, that the caption on the poster says “Give Us This Day,” not “Just Do It.” Despite an extensive search, I cannot find a similar poster with the “Just Do It” caption.
Nike switched captions, I believe, because “Just Do It” would be too controversial with American and European consumers. Note that such a caption actually urges people to pray. Imagine the protests, and possibly calls for a boycott, that Nike would face if it did this in the U.S. or Europe. In contrast, since people in the Philippines tend to be more religious than Americans and Europeans, the “Just Do It” caption, I believe, actually helped sales in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, however, consider how Nike would have acted if its main goal was to influence the religious and political views of people, instead of maximizing profits. It would have done the opposite, I believe. That is, it would have emphasized the “Just Do It” caption in the places where people are less inclined to pray—in places like Europe and the U.S., not the Philippines.
This general principle—that corporations tend to follow the ideological sentiment of their customers, rather than lead it—has been illustrated in a recent article by Matt Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, two economists at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business. Their article, “What Drives Media Slant? Evidence from U.S. Daily Newspapers,” was published in Econometrica, one of the most prestigious academic journals in economics.
The researchers first measure the slants of media outlets. (In Chapter 15 of my book, Left Turn, I give more details of their methodology. I also list the slants that the authors estimate for several media outlets. I also list some of these slants [converted to SQs] on this page of my web site. Also, see here for more discussion of the influence of corporate bosses on media content.)
The authors next examine the extent to which these slants are affected by “owner effects” and “consumer effects.” To analyze consumer effects, the scholars examine the extent to which the slants become more liberal when the market of the newspaper (i.e. the region in which its customers live) votes more Democratic.
To analyze owner effects, the authors examine a number of companies, such as Gannett, that publish different newspapers in several different areas. If Gannett’s newspapers tend to have, say, more conservative slants than Gentzkow and Shapiro’s model would otherwise predict, then their analysis concludes that Gannett has a conservative “owner effect.”
The authors find that owner effects are tiny compared to consumer effects. For instance, in one thought experiment, the authors suggest that if we moved to a world where all newspaper markets were ideological identical (i.e. all the consumers of the Daily Oklahoman became just as liberal as consumers of the Los Angeles Times, who became just as liberal as consumers of the Dallas Morning News, etc.), then this would reduce the diversity of newspaper slants by 22%. Meanwhile, if instead we moved to a world where all newspapers reported to the same owner, then this would reduce the diversity of newspaper slants by less than one-tenth of one percent. That is, consumer effects were approximately 220 times larger than owner effects.
Knowing this, perhaps I should have predicted that, for the praying-Pacquiao image, Nike would use different captions for different markets.