The seventh and final season of NBC’s Emmy-winning sitcom Parks and Recreation catapults viewers two years into the future to 2017, painting an Orwellian vision that illustrates the case for benefit corporations. Ironically, Parks and Recreation may be foretelling our own corporation-citizen future with benefit corporations leading the charge.
The final season pits corporate antagonist Gryzzle, a rapidly growing tech startup that is part Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple against the residents of Pawnee, Indiana—the stereotypical small town in middle America. Initially Pawnee’s residents celebrate the arrival of techno-cool Gryzzle. Trouble brews when residents discover Gryzzle’s massive privacy invasions, and the company aims to locate its corporate campus on land town leader Leslie Knope has earmarked for a new national park.
While the show consistently targets Gryzzle, subplots throughout the final season cast aspersions on other corporate actors. Pawnee’s cologne magnate wants to force his tenant, 41-year-old local landmark J.J.’s Diner—a comfort food destination—out of its building. The town’s television network pays Andy Dwyer peanuts for his starring role in a wildly popular children’s show only to try to steal the rights to the character from him. A recent episode includes a mock commercial for “Verexxotle,” a merger of Verizon, Exxon, and Chipotle and “one of America’s 8 companies.”
By forcing viewers to critically examine modern-day corporate titans, Parks and Recreation presents an evocative argument for public benefit corporations. For all their transgressions, Pawnee’s corporate citizens aren’t all bad. Collectively, they’ve improved the lives of Pawnee’s residents. Gryzzle has brought the town free wi-fi and cool transparent tablets. After some quick thinking by Leslie and friends, Gryzzle also decides to leverage its new campus to revitalize a blighted neighborhood and agrees to provide a home for J.J.’s Diner. The television network produces a show beloved by Pawnee’s children, and Verexxotle provides various forms of energy to the residents.
Without the capital, entrepreneurial spirit, and profit-motivation of these companies, Pawnee wouldn’t have experienced these many advancements in its quality of life. Rather than a full-out attack on capitalism, Parks and Recreation explores the positives and negatives of the current state of capitalism while calling for a new social contract between corporations and society. Benefit corporations advance this new social contract by permitting companies to adopt, and then legally obligating them to pursue, a social purpose in addition to profits. For example, one of the most successful benefit corporations to date, Ello, has bucked the profits-at-all-costs stereotype of a tech startup by promising to never put ads on its social networking site.
Benefit corporations offer a new legal means of crystalizing the social contract explored in the final season of Parks and Recreation by leveraging the power of capitalism to achieve both profits for owners and social benefits for communities.
Matt Norris, J.D., is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School and was a member of the Minnesota Public Benefit Corporation Act Drafting Committee.