Virtue-signalling has a bad name. It is often derided as the boasting people do to feel superior – even when they have no intention of living up to the ideal.

It is like when they posted Facebook videos of pouring icy water over their own heads, hashtagged #IceBucketChallenge, but raised no money for research into Motor Neurone Disease.

Or when $US5.5 billion fast food company KFC appeared to use the challenge as a branding exercise, offering to donate up to $10,000 if its own buckets were used.

But here’s the thing: despite free riders and over-eager marketers, the 2014 viral campaign raised more than $A168 million in eight weeks and was able to fully fund a number of research projects.

If some of those getting in on the act gave nothing for the cause, does it matter? It is possible that, by flooding social media with the images, they helped build momentum for an extraordinarily successful campaign.

So, can virtue signalling also have a positive spin?

Conservative British journalist and former banker, James Bartholemew, claims to have invented the term “virtue signalling” in a column for The Spectator in 2015. He wrote: “It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things.”

He says virtue signalling is often a person or brand attempting to aggrandise or  promote themselves.

If you were frank, Bartholemew explains, what you would actually say is: “I care about the environment more than most people do” or “I care about the poor more than others”.

“But your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious…”

Bartholemew says the term “virtue signalling” is pejorative in nature: “It is usually used as a judgement on what somebody else is saying. It is a judgement just like saying that somebody is boring or self-righteous. So it is not going to be used to praise somebody, but for taking a particular position.”

Virtue signalling: An attempt to show other people that you are a good person, for example by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them, especially on social media.
Cambridge Dictionary definition. 

It is social bonding

Philosopher and science writer, Dr Tim Dean, says virtue signalling has a social purpose – even when it is disingenuous. It expresses solidarity with a peer group, builds social capital and reinforces the individual’s own social identity.

“It sometimes becomes more important to believe and to express things because they are the beliefs that are held by my peer group, than it is to say things because we think they are true or false,” he says.

A secondary purpose according to Dr Dean is to distinguish that social group from all others, sometimes by saying something other groups will find disagreeable.

“I think a distant tertiary function is to express a genuinely held and rationally considered and justifiable belief.

“We are social first and rational second.”

Organisations use virtue signalling to broadcast what they stand for, differentiating themselves from the rest of the market by promoting themselves as good corporate citizens. Some of those organisations will be primarily driven by the marketing opportunity, others will be on a genuine mission to create a better planet.

A classic act of virtue signalling was the full-page advertisement in the New York Times, taken out last year by more than 30 B Corporations to pressure “big business” into putting the planet before profits. B Corps are certified businesses that balance profit and purpose, such as Ben and Jerry’s, Body Shop, Patagonia and the Guardian Media Group.

“We operate with a better model of corporate governance – which gives us, and could give you, a way to combat short-termism and the freedom to make decisions to balance profit and purpose,” the B Corps declared in their advertisement.

Their stated aim was to chivvy along the leaders in the Business Roundtable: 181 CEOs who had pledged to pledged to do away with the principle of shareholder primacy and lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.

Whose business is it?

There are some questions leaders should consider before they sign their organisations up to a campaign. In whose interests is a company acting if it lobbies for a social or political cause? How does it decide which issues are appropriate for its support?

The questions are of particular concern to conservatives, who have watched the business community speak up on issues such as gender targets, climate change and an Australian republic.

When the CEO of Qantas, Alan Joyce, pledged his company’s support in favour of the right of gay couples to marry, in 2017, it raised the ire of the conservative think-tank, The Centre For Independent Studies (CIS).

Last year, the centre published Corporate Virtue Signalling: How to Stop Big Business from Meddling in Politics – a book by its then-senior research fellow, Dr Jeremy Sammut.

At the launch of his book last year, Sammut noted recent developments that included Rio Tinto and BHP becoming the first companies to support Indigenous recognition in the Australian Constitution, a group of leading company directors forming a pressure group to push the Republican cause in Australia, while industry super funds were using their financial muscle to force companies to endorse “so-called socially responsible climate change” and industrial relations policies that aligned with union and Labor Party interests.

“If the proponents of CSR [corporate social responsibility] within Australian business, get their way, the kind of political involvement that we saw from companies during the same-sex marriage debate will be just a start,” Sammut said.

“It’s going to prove to be just the tip of the political meddling by companies in social issues that really have very little to do with shareholders’ interests, and the true business of business.”

Sammut pointed the finger at CSR professionals in human resources divisions and consultancy firms: “… they basically have an activist mindset and use the idea of CSR as a rubric, or a license, to play politics with shareholders money.”

Their ultimate ambition is to “subvert the traditional role of companies and make them into entities that campaign for what they call systemic change behind progressive social, economic, and environmental causes – all under the banner of CSR.”

Decide if it is branding or belief

It is not only the conservatives who view corporate virtue signalling with deep suspicion, those who may be considered “woke” (socially aware) can also view the practise with cynicism – especially when they have seen so many organisations pretend to be better than they are.

Dr Tim Dean notes there is a difference between corporate virtue signalling and marketing. While the former reinforces social bonds within a particular group, marketing appeals to people’s values in an attempt to elevate the company’s status, improve the brand and increase sales.

“I have some wariness around corporate statements of support for issues that are outside of their products and services, because I see there is a certain amount of disingenuousness about it.”

When a company promotes a stance on a social issue, it is often unclear whether it is supported by the CEO, the board, or the employees.

“ …  if it’s separate from the work that they do, or does not relate directly to the structure, that’s where I think it’s a little more difficult to know exactly what the motivation is and whether we can trust it,” says Dean.

“Now, there are certainly times when we need to stand up for our moral beliefs and make public statements, even when we think they’re going to be strongly opposed. But I think I see that as more of an individual obligation rather than a business’s obligation.”

He says, when organisations are considering taking a moral stance, they should first ask themselves:

  • Why are you doing it? Is it an honestly-held belief, or marketing?
  • Whose views are you representing? What proportion of employees supports your stance?
  • Is it any of your business’ business? Does it fit with the values of your organisation?
  • Why do it as an organisation, rather than as individuals?


If you are interested in discussing any of the topics raised in this article in more depth with The Ethics Centre’s consulting team, please make an enquiry via our website.

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