Michael Gale

What the United Airlines Debacle Teaches Us About Post Capitalism in the Social Media World


When United had the Chicago Airport Police drag David Dao off of United Express Flight 3411 they could not possibly imagine the brand damage they were about to undergo. Clearly it would have been cheaper to buy the guy his own plane. The fact that half a billion people in China alone watched the video, on Weibo, is just amazing.

There are obvious lessons to be learnt from how stunningly badly United and its CEO handled the fall out and many marketers and PR professionals have written about this already. And clearly the incident was amplified in China and elsewhere by the constant barrage of anti-Chinese, anti-immigrant sentiment being pushed by President Trump and the anger that has engendered.

But while Oscar Munoz trashing United’s brand is a classic PR “own goal” and Trump seems destined to completely undermine Brand America these are transitional stories that, while significant for Untied and the US, don’t mean much to the historical narrative of humanity.

However, there is as subtext to the United incident that is really fascinating. It’s about capitalism and its future. To misquote “capitalism is the worst economic system except for all others”. The problem with capitalism is it assumes that the only measure of a society is its economic output. Only things that can be quantified in a monetary way have any real value. So, wellbeing, health, safety, quality of life, human rights, equal opportunity and all such things have no value.

Forget the policies of United and what was good and bad. The reason this incident happened is that consumers have been trained to equate things by price so everyone wants the cheapest flights possible. At the same time the only measure of success for Untied management is that measured by the shareholders and reflected in the stock price, the profitability. Now layer in software. Software that lets the consumer comparison shop for the cheapest seat, software that lets airline yield managers optimize over selling of flights and then software that lets a customer distribute via social media a bad experience to the globe in seconds.

The fundamental problem is not United policies or the rise of discrimination politics or the behavior of the Airport Police. The real problem is that as consumers and shareholders we have, by focusing solely on the money, set in place a situation where the airlines keep trying to make more and more money by paring back everything they can that enhances the customer experience and we keep being motivated by cheaper and cheaper fares. Something must give and that’s what just happened.

What we really want is to cherry pick capitalism’s outcomes. Sometimes we want the most efficient behavior possible by business and government but sometimes we don’t, sometimes we want to select a different outcome that rates non-monetary things like service and experience above the lowest price and most profit. We struggle to measure these things that end up being “brand value” and can be justified by higher prices. It’s hard to measure the intangible returns of good service but in the amplified word of social media its sure easy to witness the damage to a brand.

People have been talking about what comes after capitalism and does the answer lie in the rise of social capital? There are B companies and flex companies and triple bottom lines but none of it is very broadly embraced. We have many alternate ideas and measures but we have not really worked out how to improve capitalism at all. But it is past its expiration date. Originally it was a clever way of allowing production intensive economies to work but now the means of production is increasingly a portable knowledge worker it make less sense.

I have no idea what happens next but post capitalism is definitely an accelerating artefact of the role of social media in aggregating massive aggregations of likes and dislikes. You can feel that we are evolving to something as big as capitalism in the intersection of social capital and brand but it’s hard to tell what it is. But big changes are afoot.

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