A stunt that exposes the truth about corporate greed

How is this for an image which perfectly captures the greed, hypocrisy and downright silliness of the age through which we are living? A planeload of passengers flies from Norwich to Dublin. When it arrives, the travellers wait at the airport for half an hour and then re-board the plane to fly straight back. They are, in fact, not tourists or business people but actors, whose golden dream of appearing in The Bill has brought them to Norfolk’s leading (only) international airport where they will earn £82 as part of a fairly obvious scam.

Their employers are the budget airline Flybe which recently discovered that the number of passengers it had flown on a particular route out of Norwich airport would fall agonisingly short of the figure which would land a £280,000 bonus. So, using the kind of think-outside-the-box entrepreneurial flair which is encouraged and celebrated on The Apprentice, the airline finessed the figures by contacting a talent agency. This gig, the agency told its clients, was for “background work” on behalf of an airline which was “updating its in-flight literature”.

When news of this stunt leaked out, there was huffiness all round. Flybe accused Norwich airport of being greedy and intransigent when it came to paying out, or rather failing to pay out, bonuses. In response, the airport played the green card. Its managing director was “absolutely shocked” at the cost to the environment of such irresponsible behaviour. To make matters worse, this violation of the atmosphere had taken place the very weekend of Earth Hour, a global event involving the switching off of lights to mark the problem of climate change.

What makes this story so neatly contemporary is its perfect narrative symmetry. Both sides in the row emerge without the slightest credit; every public statement has been bogus in some way or other. The airline was engaged in an act of light fraudulence, similar to an employee fiddling expenses, only on a corporate scale. The airport, whose bonus scheme is specifically designed to encourage as many gas-belching jets as possible to leave its tarmac, presents itself as a campaigner for all that is green and beautiful.

When any large company bleats virtuously about the environment, it is almost always emitting an unacceptable fug of hypocritical hot air. The Government has set the tone here by combining an uncritical worship of private profit with a need to boast of its environmental credentials, putting presentation before substance at every turn, and companies have taken to playing the same double-game.

It seems that we are as morally confused about the environment as the Victorians were about sex. As a society, we are sinning more busily than any previous generation, but we prefer to avert our eyes from our own behaviour or, even better, to blame others. If we can deploy the right recycled, sustainable eco-phrase of the moment, then we can carry on pretty much as before.

So conglomerates, and their cynical advertisers, present themselves as fiscal friends of the Earth in marketing campaigns so shamelessly fraudulent that the Advertising Standards Authority has recently been obliged to call an industry summit to remind companies and marketers of their responsibilities. No matter how shamelessly profit-led a company may be, its image is likely to be enhanced by pictures of polar bears, kiddies and wind turbines. A blizzard of reassuring pseudo-science is deployed to promote everything from oil companies to supermarkets and 4x4s.

It works, of course. Goldman Sachs has reported that companies that can present themselves as ethical and green reap the benefits in their profit-margins. Developers whose grandiose plans for new towns were rejected in the past have re-packaged their proposals as eco-towns with instant success.

The message behind the grand marketing plans which so usefully conflate green and greed is aimed at us, the consumers. The Government can put out concerned public service announcements about recycling while cheerfully encouraging the expansion of airports. Industry promotes the acquisition of new products rather than repairing the old, causing a mountain of computers, mobiles, TVs and kitchen gadgets to be dumped every day.

In my part of the country, there is now only one tyre company, a small family firm, which bothers to mend punctures rather than automatically selling new tyres. Its owner would be appalled to be described as an environmentalist but, without showing off about it, he is being more ecologically responsible in his work than many of the large companies whose green credentials are often as fake as some of Flybe’s passengers to Dublin.