In Business Behaving Badly I call out real world examples of businesses acting like fantasy villains. In this episode, however, I have a more direct connection to fantasy than I expected. You’re up: Volkswagen.
The first thing I thought of upon hearing about the Volkswagen scandal was, ironically enough, an apocalyptic comedy by two of my favorite authors. In Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and the late great Terry Pratchett, the four horsemen of the apocalypse appear to usher in the end of the world. I know it’s a strange connection to make. Stick with me here.
One of my favorite scenes in Good Omens depicts Famine, the apocalyptic horseman of yore incarnate as a successful weight loss consultant / diet guru, is thinking about a line of food he has developed.
[It was] indistinguishable from any other [food] except for […] the nutritional content, which was roughly equivalent to that of a Sony Walkman. It didn’t matter how much you ate, you lost weight. […] And hair. And skin tone. And, if you ate enough of it long enough, vital signs.”
It stuck with me not only because it’s brilliant writing (seriously, buy it), but also because it was at the time the most cynical example of corporate malfeasance I had ever heard of. Companies sell us things that fall short of expectations all the time, and occasionally a bad company will sell a product that doesn’t work at all, but there’s something especially sinister about a company marketing something that does exactly the opposite of what you purchased it for. Food that starves you is perhaps the worst example, one that is tragically not entirely fictional, but it’s not an isolated case.
In Good Omens, that deception was performed by a force of pure evil out to destroy the world. That’s probably too harsh a label for anyone at Volkswagen, but only by a hair. Global warming is a massive threat to humanity, and for any company to profit by tricking environmentally conscious people at the expense of the planet goes well beyond reprehensible. It’s something a freaking Captain Planet villain would do.
Or rather, it seem like the work of another embodiment of evil from Good Omens: Pollution.