Much of today’s IR work focuses on the role of international organisations, states, and non-governmental and civil society organisations in the diffusion of international norms such as human rights and same-sex unions. Yet we are also seeing Western corporations jump on the norm bandwagon. This has been the case for norms including multiculturalism, as well as non-discrimination in the sphere of sexual orientation. A recent ad by Honey Maid Snacks, for example, drew positive attention for its celebration of diversity, including a same-sex relationship and a multi-racial family. In a similar vein, Italian pasta company Barilla landed itself in hot water (so to speak) when its chairman said that the company would never run an advertisement featuring a gay couple. A social media storm erupted in response, and gay rights organisations called for a boycott of the company’s products. Not long afterwards, the company engaged in damage control to try to stem the tide of criticism. In response, Bertolli (a rival company) quickly put out a pro-same-sex advertisement. In fact, this was not a first; in 2009 Bertolli had released a commercial featuring a same-sex couple. The social media sphere obligingly publicized Bertolli’s response to Barilla’s chairman’s ill-advised words. A similar uproar ensured when the president and CEO of US chicken company Chick-fil-A publicly expressed his support for traditional marriage.
Much has been written about the spread of corporate social responsibility (CSR), which many Western companies have embraced in order to demonstrate their commitment to labour standards, human rights, and environmental norms – often as a result of activist pressure. Yet as noted, corporate entities also throw their weight behind other norms, like non-discrimination and marriage equality. Needless to say, there’s more going on here than genuine corporate commitment to the norms they choose to espouse publicly. In fact, this phenomenon can be convincingly interpreted as a signal by companies to their actual and would-be customers. They’re signalling not only their willingness to embrace progressive norms and push the agenda forward, but also – as in the Barilla-Bertolli example – how they measure up to/outclass competitors in the progressiveness department.
This phenomenon raises a host of questions that deserve exploration. Is the contribution of corporate entities to the diffusion of international norms a new trend? What does this phenomenon suggest for our understanding of norm diffusion? How is this proactive stance different from companies’ more reactive embrace of CSR norms, which are frequently the product of outside activism and pressure? What is the significance of firms’ embrace of civil and political rights in their advertising while bypassing social, economic, and cultural rights? All of these questions merit further study.