Things Writers Should Know About Big Businesses

Co-written with Alexis Feynman

Big businesses and corporations are popular villains in the world of fiction, and not without good reason. Almost everyone in the modern world has a verifiable story of a business's bad behavior, running the gamut from "importing slave-produced goods from overseas" to "springing hidden fees on their customers once they're hooked."

But when it comes to fiction, the lines between actual business shenanigans and complete flights of fancy often become blurred. Writers become caught up in the notion of the Villainous Corporation and forget that, despite what they seem, big business are not all-powerful - nor are they all-evil. And while flights of fancy sometimes have their place in fiction, a good number of folks could stand to keep their writing a little closer to Earth.

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Corporate employees - and their bosses - aren't your enemies.

A lot of people view corporate employees - salespeople, customer service folk, or tech support agents - as heartless monsters, unthinkingly spreading the will of The Man. This shows up not only in fiction - where struggling customers might be told "I'm sorry, but you simply don't qualify for this loan" or "Have you turned it off and turned it back on?" with all the care and compassion of the average rock. In real life, customers are liable to complain that the employees "are robotically hiding behind their policies" or "just don't want to help me." The underlying assumption is that if these people Just Had A Little Compassion, they'd be willing to bend the rules and put more effort into helping the customers out.

While situations of that kind can and do occur in real life, the reality is usually much more complex. The employee isn't just yanking your chain - they have rules, handed down from on high, that they have to follow. And while these rules might be cheerfully branded as "policies", in many cases the employee has no choice but to follow them or face consequences (up to and including termination). It doesn't matter how hard the customer complains - customer-facing employees are simply not empowered to change or violate company policies.

(Speaking of the boss - just because they have to enforce the rules doesn't mean they like to. A lot of them are stuck in the same "do-or-die" grind as their subordinates. So if the manager says that she can't compensate more than 40% of a hospital bill for neck surgery, she probably can't.)

Don't think that simply going over/around their heads will solve the problem, either. Sure, customers who do this might succeed at getting what they want in violation of the rules - but if they do, the original employees are likely to be punished anyway. (Even if they're simply following the company policy, a complaint often means a reprimand for "customer mishandling" or "poor customer service.") And while you might think it's poetic justice for that stuck-up salesman to get written up for refusing to give you an extra discount, remember that the employee could have been fired for actually doing it. They're not trying to screw anyone over - they're just trying to keep their jobs.

While we're on that subject, corporate employees - particularly in retail - are often held culpable for anything that goes wrong under their watch, whether they witnessed the event or not. Many stores take the price of stolen goods directly out of the paychecks of the people who were working at the time - if they don't just raise the prices of their goods to compensate. In the corporate world, bottom-level workers are often considered disposable, and are easy scapegoats when something goes wrong.

Corporations are not monoliths.

A lot of folks tend to see big businesses and some corporations as some kind of singular entity, each of its departments working in perfect sync with one another like the members of a beehive, with no two individuals more than a phone call away.

In reality, the bigger a business is, the more fragmented it tends to be - and the more difficult it is for members of one department to reach members of another. In a business with countrywide influence, you might have one department to be situated in Georgia while another is in New Hampshire and a third is in Washington. And while the widespread adoption of the telephone has made long-distance communications easier, it can only go so far when a given department's number isn't distributed to anyone.

The end result is that different departments - in any kind of large business - are rarely on the same page. The people who put naked ladies on the ads in Marketing may not be aware that the people in Development are trying to make their game more female-accessible, and the employee at the service desk who can't give a refund without a receipt has probably never met the person who set that policy in the first place.

Businesses aren't above the law.

No matter how evil a business seems to be, there are some things they can't get away with. Kidnapping people for scientific tests, mutating teenagers beyond recognition, or pumping gallons of toxins into the countryside might seem like the kind of dastardly thing a cold, callous corporation would do - but in the real world, there is no way they'd be able to get away with these atrocities without full legal support, which is unlikely to happen outside a full-on fascist dystopia.

If a business really wants to get away with something, they have to work within the law - and they're good at it. That's why the shady side of the average corporate dealing tends to be so well-hidden - like extra fees that aren't mentioned up front, or additional clauses that aren't spelled out until the third page of the contract in small print.

On the flip side, this also means that laws can force a business to adopt a policy that even they don't want to follow - like denying unlimited data because it's been outlawed by the FCC, or requiring photo IDs for everyone who wants to buy cigarettes.

(Not that the business won't try to weasel out of laws - they often do, using tactics like outsourcing their manufacturing to countries with lower standards, or cutting workers' hours so they don't have to pay health benefits. If it can be exploited, it will be exploited by someone.)

Even "evil" or inconvenient rules and decisions have sound (if sometimes ethically sketchy) motivations behind them.

Though it often seems like businesses are just stonewalling their customers for the fun of it, every rule that's been put into place exists in the business for a reason. Stringent warranty rules or limited trial periods often occur because multiple persons have abused more lenient policies. Miles of paperwork have to be filled out, and lengthy phone menus sifted through, to make sure the customer gets the right service to fit their needs.

When you boil down to the essentials, what this means is that businesses will typically have no more or fewer rules than they need to keep running successfully - which means keeping the customers as happy as possible without sacrificing too much of their profits. With that in mind, businesses will not go out of their way to do something that hurts either their existing customers or their prospect of getting new ones unless there is a marked benefit over a more PR-friendly alternative. So, for example, an organ vendor trying to follow a sustainable business model would not be sending agents out to repossess their products should the buyers fail to pay - not only would they not receive their money, but they would also have to pay the agents sent to retrieve the products, which would most likely not be re-usable. Thus they would be left with no more money than when they started - as well as potential murder on their hands. It would be much more effective to simply sell the truant customer's account to a collections agency and let them try to get the money.

It's all about maximizing the profits.

People often ask why big companies don't make better products than they do, and the answer usually comes down to one thing: they don't see the profit in it. That's it. Nothing more.

They don't make makeup with dubious chemicals because they're trying to kill you - they do it because these chemicals are cheaper and/or improve the product's shelf life (which means they don't have to worry as much about their stock going bad before they can sell it). They probably won't change the formula until enough people lose faith in the product that sales significantly drop - but even then, what they might just do instead is pay researchers to "prove" that the ingredient isn't as harmful as claimed, then use this to reassure the public that the product is safe, as this is often cheaper than reformulating the product. Otherwise, there's about no getting them to use an alternative without actually banning the controversial ingredient.

A business that expects to make a good chunk of its profits off a particular demographic is not likely to start producing something they think might not interest that demographic (or worse - offend its sensibilities, as this could lead to a consumer rebellion through boycotts and the like) until they're confident that someone else's money will more than make up for it. So when and if they actually do make a change, it's probably not because they grew a heart and saw the error of their ways, but because some executive somewhere saw big, shiny dollar signs.

One thing a big business might do is test the waters with a low-investment product. For example, a cosmetics company might create a small line of "eco-friendly" products and see how they sell rather than just switch all of their products over to eco-friendly ingredients. If there is no marked difference in the profits their experimental line makes over what they already have, they'll probably retire it and keep their efforts on creating the same thing they did before. If there is a difference, they might produce more of it - but just enough to fit the demand. As it'll likely be more expensive than their regular products, they'll probably go on producing the original products so they can continue profiting from people with less money to spend.

Corporations often don't really understand (or care) why their products fail.

When companies grow bigger and more successful, they start to rely on customer loyalty and name recognition to get their products sold more and more. Once they have a loyal customer base, they don't have to put as much effort into making their products sell on their actual quality - they can make it up with quantity instead. This is why a business can go from producing the best in the market early on to putting out mediocre to crappy products a few years later. Now, you might be thinking that the company might change its tune if one of their products doesn't sell well, but this often is not the case. Big businesses are often really, really terrible about figuring out why their products fail - if they even bother to look into it at all.

For example, let's say a game company releases long-anticipated sequel to a popular video game series. However, the game is full of bugs, the gameplay features are reduced from previous installments, and the art is awful - and for these reasons, many fans forgo the game. What might happen is that the company will conclude that fans simply aren't that that interested in the game's genre, and then redirect their budget to games and game genres that are making them money.

Likewise, let's say there's a TV show that's failing because fans are getting weary of the repetitive stories and the contrived petty dramas. Rather than the company re-evaluating their storytelling techniques, they'll more likely chuck in a few younger characters (teens or young adults) to try and lure in a younger viewer demographic - often to the displeasure of longterm fans who just want to see good stories about the characters they're already interested in.

This is not to say that companies never figure out why their products fail - sometimes they do - but very often they don't. So rather than try doing the same type of thing again but better this time, they'll very likely just put their effort into another product or formula they feel is a surer guarantee of profit.

It's in their best interest to maintain a relatively good image.

This is very, very important to keep in mind if you're trying to use a business as an antagonistic entity - because if not, it's easy to go overboard on the obvious evil and end up with a lot of mustache twirlers who could have never kept a business operating in the real world. A bad public image means fewer customers and fewer people willing to come to work for you, and that means less profit.

Treating one's employees relatively well can do a lot to help a company's public image and encourage more people to try and work for them. However, in cases where employees have few to no other options for employment, or where anywhere else they might go will probably be just as bad, they can get away with treating employees a lot worse than otherwise, insofar as the law will allow.

Businesses might also donate to charity. They'll often donate to disaster relief should the opportunity arise. Another common move is to sell an item and donate a portion of the profits to charity - usually up to a certain amount. For example, you might see a company selling, say, specially-marked candies that they'll take 5% of the profits from and donate to a conservation fund... up to $1,000,000. This also serves as a way to increase their own profits, as people might buy more of the product than they would otherwise because they feel like they're doing something good by buying it.

Companies might also do pro bono work as well - it makes them look generous, as well as encourages people to try out their services and see if they like them. They might also sponsor parks and the like - again, it makes them look good and it gets them free publicity.

Teaming up with a rival is also a way to generate positive publicity, even if the "teaming up" doesn't actually require any substantial collaborative effort - take, for example, the CEOs of Coke and Pepsi appearing together in an ad to promote American Corporate Partners.

Another way companies might protect their images is to use subsidiaries to release products they feel might not reflect upon them well. For example, Disney released The Nightmare Before Christmas through Touchstone Pictures because they felt that the film was too dark and unusual to fit with their wholesome, kid-friendly image.

One final (and very insidious) trick companies use to protect their images is to put unpleasant things out of the customer's sight - when you don't know in the first place that the overseas employees who made your smartphone are overworked in horrendously dangerous conditions, you can't get mad enough about it to take your business someplace else.

Of course, big business do occasionally do things that severely hurts their images. But when this happens, it's usually not that they were "just too evil to care," but rather that someone somewhere severely underestimated the odds of the public finding out and/or miscalculated how the public would probably react to it. Now, there are definitely a few cases where companies figure that even if the public does find out and react badly to something, the profits they'll make will still make up for it in the end - the Ford Pinto fiasco is a good example of this. But that said, they can't keep pulling this kind of stunt over and over indefinitely, or else people are going to eventually lose faith in their products and take their money elsewhere.

So in summary:

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