In general, the system works like this. Company A makes a particular product. In order to survive, Company A must sell its product to a sufficient number of buyers to make at least a modest profit. In turn, in order to sell, Company A must persuade would-be customers to purchase its particular product rather than that of any of its competitors.
In this sense the seller is the potential leader; the buyer the potential follower. If the seller can influence the buyer to do something that he or she might not do otherwise, then the former has gotten the latter to follow its lead. Of course the buyer in turn is free to not buy the product, to ignore whatever the seller’s blandishments and buy elsewhere.
All this especially applies to the United States of America in the second decade of the 21st century. We are inundated every day by consumer choices – to buy a can of tomato soup means to decide among several different brands of tomato soup. Again, in this sense we are free agents, that is, no one is obliging us to buy any particular brand; we not only have choices, we have the right to decide among them.
Given this, I was stunned, really stunned, to read that General Motors sales have been, to quote from a headline in USA Today, “unfazed by recalls.” Not only were sales of General Motors vehicles up 13 % in May 2014 from one year earlier, May 2014 was GM’s best month since August 2008!
Give me a break! What the hell is going on here? Does no one know the news anymore? Is the American consumer oblivious to the fact that not only has GM in the last few months recalled millions of vehicles, GM has been in the last few years demonstrably guilty of wrongdoing, possibly criminal wrongdoing? Or does the American consumer know and not care? Are we willing simply to disregard what General Motors itself admitted was corporate neglect with “devastating” consequences?
GM reports that it has already dismissed 15 employees as a result of what went wrong, and disciplined 5 others. Moreover this story is ongoing – before it’s over the federal government, the law, and the victims themselves will get their pound of flesh. But this does not absolve us, American consumers, from letting a company know in no uncertain terms what we think of it. When a company and those who people it are so self-interested as to ignore for years a potentially fatal defect, it’s up to us to boycott their products, to prove with our pocketbooks that we consider such behavior unconscionable and intolerable. For us blithely to ignore what GM did, to treat it as we would a good corporate citizen by buying what it has to sell, is to succeed bad leadership with bad followership.