Jose Palomino

Business in the Movies: Why Are We Always the Villains?

June 25, 2013

The other night I was sitting down with my youngest son to watch The Lorax.  “Now here’s a nice, animated film to enjoy with my son,” I thought.


Copyright 2011 Universal Pictures: The Lorax Movie

Not so much.

A half hour into the movie, I was really taken aback by the portrayal of business and business people.  It made me realize the sad fact that in almost every movie, the businessperson is the villain.

Surely you’ve noticed:  from Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, Working Girl to recent movies like Avatar and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps — and that’s only a few off the top of my head where the movie’s main premise is centered on business.  That doesn’t even begin to cover the movies where the premise isn’t even business-related.

How did this happen?  Because let’s be honest here — who’s paying for the CGI?  Who’s paying the designers?  Who is funding these movies? In fact, business are the source of jobs and the many things we take for granted that are part of an everyday quality of life. So why are we always the villain?

Film critic Dan Hudak says, “Mainstream movies are more likely to reaffirm society’s beliefs about careers rather than challenge them.”  If this is true, then it seems that the majority of America believes that what I do is evil.   Even more than that, the majority of America believes that who I am is evil.  I am evil because I am in business.  That’s what the movies and — according to at least one critic — most of America is telling me.

Now, certainly there are villainous people in business because… well, business people are human.  Since there are villainous people in general, you are bound to get a few bad apples in the business barrel.  That’s just the “curve” of humanity.  But to say that to be in business means to be evil is just plain unfair — not to mention dishonest.

We Have Standards

The business sector is held to a higher standard than most other professions.  There are clear consequences for your actions, and there are regulations in place to curtail the potential for evil. Yes, I was around in 2008 — but that spoke to a systemic political failure as much as it did “Wall Street greed.”

More importantly, besides having laws against dumping, extortion, and monopolies — businesses have to deal with the ultimate law: pleasing the customer.

A smart business knows that their counterparty is the customer.  The customer has equal power to the business and they will let you know if they are unhappy with something.  A couple of years ago, Netflix learned this lesson.  Instagram recently learned it too.  And even Apple — despite its attempts to operate as humanly as possiblehas faced consequences.  Basically what I’m saying is that in business, the market will tell us if they don’t like what we’re doing.  Smart companies know that corrupt behavior is bad for business; it will cost them more in the long run.  Whether they’re motivated by an inner ethos or a Darwinian sense of what will make them more money, by and large businesses gravitate to ethical behavior towards customers.  We simply have to keep ahead of the curve and hold ourselves to a high(er) standard or pay the ultimate consequence — failure.

We Care About People

Hollywood would like you to think that businesses only see people as a bottom line. And my comments above seem to agree that businesses want to make money — even to the detriment of human beings.  If you read my recent post about Amos Winter and his wheelchair wheel re-design, you’ll know that this isn’t the case.

But beyond Amos Winter, a Hollywood insider wouldn’t have far to walk to come face-to-face with a big business who is helping humanitarian efforts.  In fact, without realizing it, they’re probably supporting this company every day — one $5 cup of coffee at a time.  Starbucks is committed to serving the community — bettering the lives of people in the local neighborhood, as well as abroad.  Investing in programs that help economic and social development, Starbucks wants to help coffee farmers earn a fair wage that will support their families.

The Target Foundation is another example of a company caring about the lives of people.   According to the website, Target donates 5% of their annual profit (about $4 million each week) to help people.  From scholarships to libraries, local communities to communities abroad, Target and Starbucks are proof that companies can be heroes instead of the villains.

We Want to Better the World

Oftentimes in movies, businesses are shown to pollute and wreak havoc on the environment.  But is this portrayal truly accurate?

Well, let’s take a quick look at Nike Reuse-a-Shoe.  Through this program, Nike takes worn-out sneakers, grinds them up, and uses the material — what they call Nike Grind — to make sports surfaces throughout the world.  Nike says that since 1990, this program has recycled 28 million pairs of shoes to help surface more than 450,000 locations worldwide.  I don’t know about you, but it sounds like Nike cares about bettering the world.

And it’s not just Nike; other companies are following suit, and some are even built around efforts to help the environment.  At Tom’s of Maine, the company has always been committed to creating an environmentally-friendly, sustainable manufacturing model.  Even though the company is now owned by Colgate-Palmolive, this business is built around giving back.  Just pick up a tube of their toothpaste to learn about their efforts to recycle and be responsible stewards of the earth.

So Listen Up, Hollywood

It’s not that businesses can’t get away with the evil seen on the big screen — the point is that most aren’t even trying “to get away with it.”  And these are just the big names I’ve listed here — I’m not even mentioning the many small businesses, entrepreneurs, or even bigger B2B companies who are working to make a difference and conduct themselves with integrity.

So note to Hollywood: cut us a break and maybe shed a little light on business in the real world.  We’re not the villains. Well, at least not most of the time.

  • Do you agree with this unfair portrayal in the movies?  

  • Can you think of any examples of movies where business isn’t the villain?

  • What other companies do you see as exemplary in terms of business conduct?

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Tom June 26, 2013 at 8:27pm

Geez Jose, of course you personally are the villain because you are a Christian business person. I guess only I could be worse as a Christian financial advisor?

Dave June 27, 2013 at 11:31am

“Hollywood,” or media in general, are seeking to provide a product that sells. In that, mundane and average don’t draw much attention. At the very least, they provide a caricature representation of the authentic, accentuating notable features (good or bad). The exercise of searching my mind for examples (where business people are portrayed as villains or heroes) is challenging and stimulating, bringing to mind characters found in such movies as Schindler’s List, Door to Door, Pursuit of Happyness, and more. The real challenge, for me, is not the good or bad portrayal of someone in business; rather, it’s the notion that as a business person I can be characterized as impacting people in one way or the other, or simply forgotten as someone not notable at all. That a person in business could so impact lives as to be the riveting focus of a plot is a somber reminder that what we do matters. They may hate us, or they may love us; or, if we’re really apathetic about what we do, they may not even notice us. The seeming trend to villainize business people is a reflection of how we think. Have you ever noticed that the weather man never says, “80% chance of sun today?” No, they say, “20% chance of rain.” Or have you ever counted the news stories, comparing good news to bad news? It doesn’t bother me that movies should make business people look bad, especially when I consider how movies make movie-makers look. It does, however, challenge me to wonder, if a movie was made of my life, how would I be characterized? Or, all the more sobering, am I making any impact worth characterizing?

Jose Palomino July 3, 2013 at 10:37am

Dave, these are really insightful thoughts — thanks for adding to the conversation. Something I tell my kids — and a way I am to live — is to remember daily that we are all “change agents.” What we choose to do with the work we are given has the ability to impact others, so we need to choose wisely.

Winnie June 27, 2013 at 12:28pm

AMEN!!! Thanks for so eloquently stating what I’ve been feeling for AGES! People don’t stop to think they’re watching something meant to be entertainment and those in entertainment refuse to believe the impact they make.

There are bad people in every profession and it’s up to the business community to get our message out loud and long.

Thanks for putting this out there!

Jose Palomino July 3, 2013 at 10:37am

You’re welcome, Winnie! Thanks for visiting. I’m glad I was able to articulate — even just a little bit — what’s been on people’s hearts. It’s important we keep this conversation going so we’re not all placed in the “evil business person” box.

Textbroker USA June 27, 2013 at 1:11pm

Great timing- I’m just finishing Conscious Capitalism by John Mackay of Whole Foods. He too sees the current anti-business bias in the media, and this idea of concious capitalism, or taking a win-win approach to customers, suppliers, regulatory bodies, employees, shareholders and the environment is what businesses need to embrace to become agents for good. It’s a fascinating book if you haven’t read it yet.

Jose Palomino July 3, 2013 at 10:38am

Win-win! Exactly! This is what businesses with integrity aim to do with their clients — work for THEIR benefit and success. It’s not about US — it’s about what WE can do for OTHERS. Thanks for the book recommendation — I’ll be sure to check it out.

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