Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.
—William Butler Yeats, from "The Circus Animals' Desertion"
We live in the age of online presence: it's hard to argue that you're part of the warp and weft of modern society if you're not somehow accessible — if others can't find out something about you — on the Internet. This goes even more for companies than for people, since companies are, after all, public by their nature; at least, the ones that do business with or sell their shares to the public are. We've been exploring the online presence of companies recently in the Lounge. The language that companies use to present their public face has piqued our curiosity and we've been thinking about what purpose these self-reports from companies serve.
Most company websites have a bannerline or drop-down menu link called "About Us." Another popular choice is, e.g., "About Acme Widgets" or "Who We Are." Clicking on this link might take you to single page, or to a microsite containing numerous other links, where you can unpack the various components that make up the package of what a company wants you to think it is. You sometimes have to drill down a few levels from the home page to find this information, and that in itself is an interesting point that we'll return to. We looked specifically at pages in which companies lay out their business and ethical philosophy, or their "values," which is a popular way of characterizing these aspects of a company.
Some companies lay out their values under the banner of "corporate citizenship" — a term that somewhat blurs the line between the corporate and the individual, since a citizen is, by definition, an individual. This point of view, of a company having the qualities of a person, is practical for presenting traits that are typically attributed to an individual rather than a group. It also has solid historical credentials, since corporations as they exist today were originally conceived as a sort of artificial person having a separate legal entity. Finally, presenting the company as an entity capable of holding or expressing individual human traits is useful for companies because it makes them seem more friendly — even befriendable — than they might otherwise seem.
What purpose do these "About Us" statements serve? At first glance, they seem to attempt for companies what an individual's personal profile on a dating site does: they are a way of saying "Here are some reasons why you might want to go out/spend the rest of your life with me" — or in the case of a public company, "buy my shares" or "do business with me." Among these pages you may find the company's mission statement or "vision statement," such as this one from Chevron:
At the heart of The Chevron Way is our vision... to be the global energy company most admired for its people, partnership and performance.
Or this one, a bit more bare-bones, from Cardinal Health:
To be the premier global healthcare company.
In both cases we have preserved the italic-flagged emphasis that the companies themselves use on their websites. These two, Chevron and Cardinal, express an aspiration to superlative status, though they both avoid expressing it in language so bald as, e.g., "biggest." Chevron merely italicizes the definite article; Cardinal uses premier, presumably in the sense "first in rank." These language choices exemplify one theme that is invariable on company websites: a preference for gentle, civil, defanged expression. This kind of expression is at odds with the way corporations are often portrayed in public discourse: as impersonal, rapacious, and aggressive. As evidence of this: aside from purely descriptive adjectives (multinational, giant, major), the adjectives that most typically occur before the word corporation (as assayed in the 2-billion word Oxford English Corpus) are greedy, faceless, and evil.
It's helpful to take a step back from some of these pages and analyze their content statistically; for that, we used VocabGrabber to make portraits of a few such pages, all from Fortune 100 companies. Here's one from Procter & Gamble:
For a company that is known chiefly for its hundreds of consumer products, this portrait seems to boil down to a worthy mission: "improve life." Kraft Foods also seems to be right on the money in making the most frequent words on its "Who We Are" page the ones that deliver its message:
Beyond the headline words, all companies are eager to put their best foot forward by cataloging their many achievements and positive attributes: words that occur frequently on almost all company profile pages are community, responsibility, and commitment. A word that almost never occurs is corporation.
Wal-Mart's "values" page is in a similar vein. Whether intentionally or not, it succeeds in making its expanded statement a kind of holographic enlargement of its advertising slogan: "Save Money. Live Better." Even the most scattered attention span, clocking every tenth word or so on the page, would probably still walk away with the right take-home message:
Verizon keeps to a simple message as well — "great value" — even if you miss all the other points on the page that it labels "Corporate Responsibility."
Taken collectively, these company profiles offer a portrait of the corporation that almost glows in the dark. It is curious then that this 1000-watt bulb is sometimes hidden under a bushel, requiring the website visitor to click through several layers of links before getting to the point. In view of the disparity between the public perception of corporations and the way they wish to be perceived, why do companies not shout this information from their rooftops — or in this context, blazon it prominently on their home page?
The most obvious answer is that people do not normally visit company websites to peruse this information: they're there to buy something, contact a service department, apply for a job, or for some other more practical purpose. To their credit, companies probably recognize this and design their main port of entry to enable the user to get where he or she wants to go quickly. But is it possible, too, that corporations are aware of the sort of cognitive dissonance that might result if this sort of information greeted the visitor immediately upon landing on the website? Say for example, that you have exhausted all the menus on a company's customer service telephone lines and found that none of them offer you an option to talk to a person in real time. Do you really want to be told on the website that the company's "commitment is to put our customers first by providing excellent service and great communications experiences"?
The main purpose of the "About Us" species of pages seems to be rhetorical, in every sense of the word — and even with a nod to the classical sense, reflecting Aristotle's definition: rhetoric is "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." But is anyone ever persuaded by these corporate self-reports? It doesn't seem likely: experience is the main basis on which people form judgments, and presumably the basis on which terms like faceless, greedy, and evil came to be associated with corporations in the first place. Presumably, this fact is not lost on corporations — and they soldier on, fighting the public relations battle on all possible fronts.