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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

On the Corporate Social Responsibility to Boycott Rolling Stone Magazine

The editors at Rolling Stone must have been kicking themselves after several retail chains announced that they would not be selling the issue that displays Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a young hottie. The problem is that criminal charges had been made against him for the Boston marathon bombing that took place in April 2013. Selling a magazine by playing off the good looks of a terrorist was more than several—but not all—retailers could stand. Either the standout was not being socially responsible or to be socially responsible is not as clear-cut as we might suppose.

                                                               Can a Terrorist be a Hottie?
        This picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is on the cover of an issue of the Rolling Stone. From a marketing perspective, why might the editors have selected this particular photo? To which market segment might the choice be oriented? Image Source: hdwallpaperfresh.com  
Tedeschi Foods, a grocery-store chain based in New England, issued a rather emotional statement for a company: “Tedeschi Food Shops supports the need to share the news with everyone, but cannot support actions that serve to glorify the evil actions of anyone. With that being said, we will not be carrying this issue of Rolling Stone. Music and terrorism don’t mix!”[1] Had Rolling Stone’s editors sought to glorify the evil actions of an alleged bomber, or had the intent been to profit from them? If the latter, couldn’t the news companies that splashed pictures of Tsarnaev on the television screen (while not showing commercials) be accused of the very same thing? Music and terrorism may not mix, but selling news and showcasing bombers apparently do. Is the Rolling Stones in the business of news or music?

Rite Aid issued a statement that it too would not be selling the paper, “Out of respect for those affected by the Boston Marathon Bombing.” CVS issued a similar statement. “As a company with deep roots in New England and a strong presence in Boston, we believe this is the right decision out of respect for the victims of the attack and their loved ones.”[2] Did the CVS executives really want to respect the victims, or did the underlying rationale have more to do with the positive PR impact on CVS’s image from “showing” compassion and respect in line with societal norms? The phrases “deep roots in New England” and “strong presence in Boston” can be read as advertisements using pathos, or emotion, to persuade New Englanders and Bostonians to identify with, and thus buy from, the “hometown” company.

Walgreens simply stated that it would not be selling the issue. K-Mart had a similar statement, according to the Huffington Post. Ironically, those two retailers might have been more principled in the decision, as they were less oriented to profiting from their respective announcements.

Bucking this collective push away from the controversial cover, the 7-Eleven convenience-store chain announced that it would be selling the issue. This decision raises the question of whether companies should have identical social policies, given that the relevant societal norm does not differ.[3] Did the 7-Eleven executives make the wrong decision, given the relevant societal norm? Or does that norm conflict with another—namely, that consumers should be the ones to make the decision through their purchasing decisions. The other retailers preempted the consumers from “voting with their wallets.” In other words, the societal norm against popularizing people who did bad things, allegedly or not, conflicts with the value of economic liberty in a market economy. Which is more in line with societal values in the U.S.:  compassion for victims or economic freedom? It depends on which value is or ought to be prioritized. In advocating a fit with societal norms and values, corporate social responsibility cannot say which norm or value should be prioritized—only that the company should closely fit itself with whichever societal norm or value is “picked.” To privilege particular societal norms or values over others as if the emphasis were mandated or implied in being socially responsible makes corporate social responsibility dogmatic in the sense of being arbitrary. That is, it makes CSR ideologically prescriptive rather than a theory explaining why only some companies survive in the long run and a tool being used by managers to steer their companies through choppy waters.

In terms of the Rolling Stone cover, it may indeed be arbitrary for retail chains to boycott the issue after television news networks made so much money off the story by showing the bomber’s picture. In other words, the double-standard may point to the arbitrariness in the corporate social responsibility movement. On the other hand, the retailers (excepting 7-Eleven) may have drawn the line at the magazine cover because the particular head shot together with the Rolling Stone context may have been designed to sell the bomber as a sexy guy—something the television coverage did not do. Whereas profiting by showing various pictures strains a societal norm but does not break it, profiting by sexualizing a young terrorist may indeed cross the line.

At any rate, this case study demonstrates that corporations do indeed differ with respect to how or whether to be socially responsible. That is to say, social responsibility is a judgment call on which people can and do differ.

1. “Rolling Stone’s ‘The Bomber’ Issue Banned By CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid And Kmart,” The Huffington Post, June 17, 2013.
2. “Rolling Stone’s ‘The Bomber’ Issue Banned By CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid And Kmart,” The Huffington Post, June 17, 2013.
3. This assumption does not apply to the environment of international business, as different societies have differing societal norms on a given topic.