In 2014, Nick Train, the UK’s pre-eminent fund manager, began buying shares in Manchester United. Train had been watching the storm of publicity around the signing of the team’s new stars. He realised that with the growth of the internet, the value of Manchester United’s brand would inexorably rise.
As Train explained, teams like Manchester United are an “entertainment product”. Their job is to compete for our attention. Attention is a valuable commodity, bringing with it TV rights, merchandising and, of course, advertising.
If this sounds superficial, it isn’t. The value of celebrity brands is huge. The Kardashian family is estimated to be worth over $2 billion.
When Marcus Rashford began campaigning for free school meals amongst other things, the publicity he generated was worth millions to his club and his personal brand value.
For companies, taking on a moral cause may have far more to do with profit than principles. With a few carefully timed tweets, brands can gain the sort of exposure that would cost them millions through conventional advertising. Ben & Jerry’s, the ice-cream brand that pontificates on everything from Israel to policing, has over half a million followers on Twitter.
While the celebs and their customers add another billion to their bottom line, who pays? The answer is we do. When these would-be preachers harangue governments into expensive and often poorly conceived policies, our taxes go up.
Any high profile virtue signaller who refused would face severe public opprobrium
And that’s why we need a Rashford Tax. When a high profile company or celebrity campaigns for more public resources to be thrown at a particular cause, we should begin by very publicly asking them for a contribution. It should not be a trifling contribution either. Take the £120m Summer Covid Food Fund that Marcus Rashford campaigned for. He could easily afford the first £30m, his team-mates could do the next £30m and the public do the other half. For longer term issues, we should contract the celebs or companies into committing an extra 25 per cent of their annual income for life.
This could be done with a special tax rate, or through the National Lottery Fund. With the latter, we could pick an appropriate charity to which the celebrity or company would make a lifetime commitment, matched with a contribution from public funds.
While such a scheme would be voluntary, any high profile virtue signaller who refused would face severe public opprobrium, with a customer and government boycott to boot.
We have heard plenty about “The Big Society” and “Levelling up” — well, here it is in action: our richest and most famous celebs and institutions supporting those causes close to their hearts, while we chip in too. And we sure are going to need their money. Having run up nearly half a trillion pounds of additional debt through the pandemic, there are some painful cuts to come.
A Rashford Tax would also get round the “Other People’s Money” problem. It is all too easy to spend other people’s money carelessly. While Marcus Rashford does seem genuinely passionate about school lunches, he has been remarkably silent on the millions of school meals laid on for children who never showed up to eat them.
While Sir Bob Geldof has enjoyed A-list status four decades after the Boomtown Rats did anything of note, Ethiopia has fared less well. Live Aid happened thirty-six years ago, and still the country is making the news for war and famine. Indeed, it is now widely recognised that China (for all its faults) has lifted more Africans out of poverty by just buying stuff from them than decades of Western handouts.
Perhaps Sir Bob would have been a bit more forthright if it were his money being squandered.
A Rashford tax might also make them think twice before shooting their mouths off. The rich, as they say, are not like you and me. In 2008, the management of General Motors took a private elevator from their executive suite to a secure underground car park. From there, a cortege of chauffeured limousines took them to the airport, where private jets awaited them. They were off to Washington to ask Congress for a $25 billion dollar taxpayer funded bailout.
Today’s self appointed moral arbiters do not take public transport. They do not queue for anything. They have 24 hour security. They inhabit an echo chamber of star-struck luvvies and sycophants. The inevitable result is mountain sized egos atop surgically enhanced bodies. So it’s no surprise that most of their ideas are just not very good.
Take Joanna Lumley’s campaign to extend citizenship rights to Ghurkha veterans. Ghurkhas are indeed incredibly brave soldiers, but why encourage them to re-settle thousands of miles away from their kith and kin, in an expensive country with a totally different culture and geography? If we want to reward their bravery, as we should, why not pay them and their families a generous end of career bonus to enjoy a comfortable retirement in their homeland?
It’s not as if we want all this virtue-signalling anyway. A landmark study by the CPS recently revealed that the public explicitly do not want companies to wade in on divisive political and social issues. We’d all rather they looked after their employees and stuck to the day job. Certainly, football fans would be rather happier if Mr Rashford did a little less crusading and a little more penalty practice.
In fact there is something quite sinister about the whole business. “It’s always the sanctimonious ones” as they say. No more so than when the entire country took the afternoon off to celebrate the denouement of Matt Hancock, just weeks after telling off the country’s teenage Romeos and Juliets for trysting in the park.
Indeed, it brought back memories of the moral handwringing about family values by John Major’s Government. In quick succession, cheating minsters fell like wickets at a parents day cricket match. Even the Prime Minister himself turned out to be batting away from home.
Here is a big business backing a campaign to get big business out of politics
The fact that the processed food and drinks industry is leading the moral charge would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Recent scientific studies suggest that as many as one in five of us will be killed by the overconsumption of processed foods. That is way more than tobacco. The link with cancers is particularly stark. If you have ever watched a loved one die from colorectal cancer, as I have, it is harrowing. Patients literally starve to death. This is holocaust level suffering on a holocaust scale. As health services buckle and life expectancies tumble under the weight of our killer diets, perhaps these companies know their own Nuremberg moment is in the offing.
Furthermore processed food, and resulting problems such as obesity, occur disproportionately among low income and ethnic minority households. So when companies like Coca-Cola (dubbed “Woke Coke”) throw their support behind Black Lives Matter, it has all the tasteless irony of tobacco companies sponsoring sports tournaments.
Then there’s the financial services industry and their love affair with all things ESG. You can hardly avoid the sense that there is a perfect correlation between how badly a financial firm is doing and how vociferous they are on ESG. For failing institutions trying to obfuscate poor performance and excessive fees, ESG is the lifeboat they are desperately swimming for.
First prize for breathtaking hypocrisy must go to Ben & Jerry’s. On 21 April, the company tweeted their support for legislation to reduce the influence of big business on US politics. So here is a big business, which campaigns on every political issue under the sun, backing a campaign to get big business out of politics. Meanwhile, according to OpenSecrets.org, in 2020, their parent company, Unilever US, spent $12m on lobbying. Wow!
So next time Ben & Jerry’s tells another government to spend more taxpayer’s money on climate change, new pilot schemes for deprived neighbourhoods or whatever next week’s justa causa happens to be, let’s publicly demand Unilever and their executives pay up. £100m a year for each cause would be a start. God knows they can afford it.
Perhaps we need a brand new Twitter handle: #CoughUpOrShutUp.
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