In Amazon We Trust: How the Giant Won Everyone Over (Except NYC)

Why you should care

Because your heart lies where your treasure is.

This OZY series explores how institutions are fighting for public trust. This OZY series explores how institutions are battling declining trust — and what's replacing them.

Amazon has been an easy punching bag for a certain cadre of critics as of late. The online retailer, which had a $1 trillion valuation in September 2018 and is run by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, has drawn the ire of progressives. Sen. Bernie Sanders successfully shamed the company into paying its workers a $15-per-hour wage, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned against the company’s plans to place one of its new hubs in Long Island City, Queens. That campaign ended this week when Amazon said it’ll abandon those ambitions and launch a search for a new hub city. Bezos even incurred the ire of South Park: He was portrayed as a colossal-brained villain throughout the TV show’s recently concluded 22nd season. 

But while Amazon may be viewed skeptically by experts, politicians and comedians, it’s won over the most important constituency of all — the American public. That’s according to a recent poll from Georgetown University: Not only was Amazon ranked the second-most trusted of 20 institutions in the sample of 5,400 Americans, it was also one of the few to receive near-total bipartisan acclaim. 

Democrats had more faith in Amazon than any other institution, even nonprofits and universities. Republicans trusted only the military and local police more, with Amazon listed above religion and major companies.

The results are all the more eyebrow-raising considering the scrutiny other data-collecting behemoths have received recently. Facebook finished as the fourth least trusted institution (only political parties, Congress and the executive branch fared worse). And while Google ranked highly in the survey, at third overall in institutional confidence, it’s worth noting that support was almost single-handedly borne by Democrats — Republicans listed it 12th on the list of 20 institutions surveyed. Still, data collection didn’t seem to be the root of tech companies’ popularity, or lack thereof, “because they all collect data,” says Jon Ladd, a Georgetown University professor and the survey’s director.

Instead, Amazon seems to benefit from the simple guarantee it makes. “Trust is the function of the promises made and whether they are fulfilled,” says Brad Stone, a Bloomberg journalist and author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. “It has promised, very visibly, that when you click and buy something, it will be delivered on a certain date. And it has done an amazing job of fulfilling that promise.”

 

The primacy of Amazon in the Georgetown poll could also be reflective of the company’s primacy in our daily life. While people might attend church once a week, interactions with the internet commerce site are often once, twice, three times a week experiences, “particularly as it moves into groceries,” Stone says. “If we’re ranking these institutions in terms of the number of times they’re touching our lives, then clearly Amazon is going to be the most influential.” And while consumers can easily ask whether their interactions with social media companies like Facebook are positive, few can say the same about Amazon. 

Trust v2

Source Baker Center for Leadership & Governance

“You’re not waiting in the soul-sucking line at the local discount shopping center. And that’s a difference-maker,” Stone says.

The results can also be seen as part of a broader trend: Institutions that can avoid being politicized in this hyperpartisan age tend to enjoy greater public trust. Amazon and Google performed well, likely because they have products people are satisfied with, while Facebook became a “political football,” Ladd says. Democrats disliked Facebook, associating it with the spread of “fake news” and Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Republicans felt like its algorithm was biased to artificially suppress conservative news outlets.

Amazon’s goodwill with the public doesn’t come completely from left field, as the company has long outstripped its rivals in public polls around favorability. Its dominance in American life over mainstay institutions is perhaps the most impressive. While religion remained popular with Republicans, the preference for Amazon is another proof point that American culture is secularizing, Ladd says.

Amazon isn’t immune to politicization, of course. After all, its business model of courting cities for massive tax breaks has drawn outrage from those who see it as a strategy of civic shakedown. And the working conditions for its employees, both domestic and overseas — including low pay, long hours and few allowances for bathroom breaks — is an easy target, albeit one that hasn’t had its watershed moment yet. “The criticism of how they treat their workers hasn’t broken through to be widely known to the public,” Ladd says. So long as most people’s interaction with Amazon is a prompt delivery to their doorstep, that might remain the case. But as Amazon increasingly moves its business into the public sphere, particularly through cloud storage services for the military, there are many ways for its smiling logo to become politicized still.

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