"By 2017, American companies had put at least $2.6 trillion into offshore tax shelters...Nike had $12.2 billion.... The company estimates that if its $12.2 billion was repatriated to the US, it would owe $4.1 billion in US taxes... Designating its profits this way allows the company to avoid paying even a dime of US income taxes on these profits..." —The Oregonian
The horrible murder of George Floyd was treated by the marketing industry last week as an opportunity to express sincere desire for change. Sadly, it also exposed our talent for hypocrisy.
While brand marketers were exhorting us to end practices that cause social damage to black Americans, they were themselves deeply engaged in some of the most pernicious practices.
I have my own standard for evaluating a company's true commitment to social justice. It is this: to what extremes does it go to avoid paying taxes?
Taxation may be unpleasant. Tax dollars are often squandered on idiotic schemes. Paying taxes may reduce a corporation's returns to investors. But taxation is by far the most potent source of resources for societies to redress social ills. Taxation funds education. Taxation funds housing. Taxation funds health initiatives. Taxation funds social programs.
There is no way around this—when corporations take extraordinary measures to avoid paying taxes, they are doing extraordinary harm to citizens who have the greatest need for education, housing, health, and social programs. If brands really believe that Black Lives Matter they must stop starving governments of the resources to improve black lives by hiding their taxable profits in offshore tax havens. Like it or not, to a substantial degree, taxation is the engine that funds social justice.
There will be those who say that these tax dodges are perfectly legal. In many cases they are. This fact impresses me not one bit. If you're going to use social media or paid media to pound your chest about social justice, you have a higher responsibility than just to obey the letter of the law. There is little honor in being legally compliant and ethically opportunistic.
Dear business colleagues: If you really want to help heal the US here's step one: Pay your fucking taxes. Until you're willing to do that, please instruct your marketing departments to spare us the high-minded pieties.
Let's make this so simple that even a CEO can understand it: You can't be for social justice and against paying taxes.
Bob Hoffman is the author of several best-selling books about advertising, a popular international speaker on advertising and marketing, and the creator of 'The Ad Contrarian' newsletter, where this first appeared, and blog. Earlier in his career he was CEO of two independent agencies and the US operation of an international agency.