“Profit-shaming”? That’s a bit rich

Borrowing shamelessly from the nomenclature of oppression, the head of one multi-national asserts it is the corporates who are the victims

There’s a new corporate champion in town. His name is Darren O’Brien, the head of giant snack food company, Mondelez Australia, who has bravely come to the defence of a little- known oppressed minority: Australian companies that make big profits.

O’Brien has a term for attacks on these oppressed companies. It is “profit-shaming” – a remarkable linguistic invention which must surely be a candidate for 2024 Word of the Year. O’Brien made his memorable contribution to the language of oppression at a conference of the Australian Food and Grocery Council last week, as he rose in defence of corporations which face the wrath of the public because of their profits.

“While multiple inquiries and political displays may grab short term headlines, they fail to address the fundamental drivers of cost pressures,” he said. “Profit shaming has become prevalent, but industry profitability is essential for driving investments, creating jobs, and fuelling innovation.”

O’Brien is not being completely original, of course. He has borrowed, shamelessly, from the nomenclature of oppression. The term “fat-shaming” is perhaps the best known, and many will be aware of “slut-shaming” – the act of embarrassing women and girls for their sexual behaviour or appearance.

But the genius of O’Brien’s lexical turn is this: he has inverted the power dynamic such as to position corporations and their profits as victims, subject to the same style of persecution as others in the “shame” genre.

It is a brazen and daring move and it has no doubt made O’Brien hero for the day among the food and grocery set. He was, after all, coming to the defence of the likes of Coles and Woolworths who had been subjected to political scrutiny and have been struggling under the weight of public condemnation because of their ever-increasing profits at a time when households are struggling to make ends meet.

O’Brien’s company, Mondelez Australia, counts Cadbury and Oreo among its range of brands. Parent company, Mondelez International, which is based in the United States, last year reported profits of US$13.7 billion on net revenue of US$36.0 billion – a profit margin of 38 per cent. The company’s CEO received $21 million in remuneration, made up of base salary, bonuses and stock options.

Mondelez world is different to the one you and I inhabit. Here the company boasts of its commitment to “mindful snacking” along with developing consumer activities “to enjoy chocolate with greater attention and intention.” It is, in other words, a place where semantic mashups are part of daily life.

Inadvertently, perhaps, Darren O’Brien has shone a light on just how far corporates have gone down the road of twisting the narrative about their profits and, indeed, positioning themselves as the victims in all this.

O’Brien’s accusation of profit-shaming will also be music to the ears of the banks. Last year Australia’s big four banks reported a record full-year profit of nearly $32.5 billion between them. According to a UNSW analysis this was an increase of 12.4 per cent over the previous financial year. The Commonwealth Bank posted the largest profit ($10.2 billion) followed by NAB ($7.7 billion), ANZ ($7.4 billion) and Westpac ($7.195 billion).

At the same time, the study found that many mortgage holders were feeling the pinch of increased interest rates. “Recent Roy Morgan research found that more than 1.5 million mortgage holders were at risk of mortgage stress in the three months to October,” it said.

The celebrated American mathematician Cathy O’Neil has explored the phenomenon of shame in her third bookThe Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation.

“In the olden days [shame] would have prevented us from breaking important rules, like hoarding food in a famine,” O’Neil writes. “We want to hoard food because selfishly, that will be good for us—but the community needs us not to … If we don’t follow the rules of the community, we could be expelled from it.”

O’Neil might as well be talking about the phenomenon of spiralling profits and corporate salaries during a cost-of-living crisis when ordinary folk are struggling to put food on the table and pay the rent.

The cry of “profit-shaming” might have a perverse “greed is good” feel for those in the corporate box. But surely one person’s “shaming” is simply another person’s demand for transparency and fairness.

 

David Hardaker is an investigative journalist and author.

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