Despite Amazon’s rapid ascendance to one of the most valuable companies in the world, its CEO is a figure that has remained mostly in the shadows. As a growing number of tech CEOs have crashed into the world of celebrity – notably Elon Musk and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey – Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, has remained fiercely private and rigidly controlling over his public image.
Despite his steadily amassing fortune, Bezos is a name that much of the western populace may not have had much familiarity with. Until earlier this year, that is.
The first rupture in the facade of Bezos’ carefully constructed image as devoted family man and impeccable businessman (bolstered by articles like this) came with the announcement in January – via Twitter – that he was splitting from his wife of 25 years, Mackenzie Bezos.
This revelation was startling in that it offered a rare insight into the personal life of Bezos – and one that betrayed a more complex picture than was ever hinted at in public. However, little speculation as to foul play surfaced.
Bezos has of course been subject to some fairly run of the mill criticism that tends to focus on his business practices – he doesn’t pay enough tax (which billionaire does?); his trillion dollar company benefits from tax breaks (so have other tech companies); he’s not a philanthropist (he broke his dry spell last year with the founding of a $2 billion fund for the homeless, which many still criticised as insufficient); he crushes unions and leads inadequate working conditions.
But these criticisms are of the nature that they could easily have flitted under the radar of someone without a vested interest in tech news, consigned to the folder of ‘stuff CEOs get in trouble for’ never to be glanced at again. Certainly nothing that would pose real consequences for the outlook of Amazon.
Bezos vs The National Enquirer
It was a day after the divorce announcement that the story took an explosive turn. Many will by now be familiar with the salacious text messages published by The National Enquirer, a US supermarket tabloid, serving as proof that the billionaire businessman had been cheating on his wife with former TV anchor, Lauren Sanchez.
Sixteen days later, the story was electrified again, when Bezos published a Medium post alleging that the National Enquirer had blackmailed him with the threat of releasing incriminating pictures – of the ‘personal, intimate’ variety – and yet more scandalous messages.
The condition for silence? Bezos must publicly state (via the newspaper he owns, The Washington Post) that the newspaper’s initial release of the texts was not politically motivated. This in spite of the fact that the head of AMI, The National Enquirer’s parent company, David Pecker is a staunch ally of Trump, who, in turn, has publicly clashed with Bezos and the Washington Post for what he deems unfair treatment from the paper.
In fact, there has even been speculation that the powers of government services such as the NSA or the FBI may had been abused in obtaining the texts and pictures of Bezos.
But despite the vast power potentially weighted against him, rather than cow to their demands and publish the statement, Bezos took a rather unorthodox approach.
Now, some publications have surmised that this Medium post was unfiltered Bezos: solely the Amazon CEO, his stream of consciousness and a keyboard. A different take would be that this post represents an extremely calculated PR stunt concocted by Bezos and a crack team of advisors. Given Bezos’ stringent approach to image control, he doesn’t seem the type to go keyboard vigilante on any situation.
But however the post came into existence, it was patently a masterpiece, combining several crucial ingredients for virality. Firstly, was the choice – much discussed – to publish the post on blogging platform, Medium. Some questioned why he didn’t publish the piece in his own newspaper. However, this decision would have invariably led to mention of Bezos’ ownership of the newspaper in the same breath, at best prompting connotations of his extreme wealth, and at worst accusations of the exploitation of a platform he acquired through said wealth. Far, far better to post in a neutral place accessible to any amateur blogger if you’re attempting to appear one of the people.
Secondly, we have to take a moment to appreciate the title of the post: No thank you, Mr. Pecker. It was beautiful, comedic happenstance that the head of AMI (American Media Inc), the parent company of The National Enquirer, was blessed with such a name and titling the piece as such was genius. Rather than sincerity, the tongue in cheek approach creates for Bezos an arch, knowing persona – still laughing and despite the nudes, not the one left holding his proverbial pecker.
The rest of the article uses relatively spare, and at times colloquial language to get his points across. It’s obvious Bezos could have had the post edited more closely by any number of Washington Post staff – whose first instinct may have been to remove the non-word, ‘complexifier’ – but perhaps a more rough and ready tone was the aim. After all, if Trump’s rambling Twitter feed sets the linguistic standards for ‘everyman’, then it doesn’t take much to appear erudite to the point of alienating.
The post is scattered with chummy asides to the reader, like: “OK, back to their threat to publish intimate photos of me.” It makes the text intimate and inviting, nodding to the fact – unintentionally or not – that this is a story with bad guys and heroes.
And it’s a narrative we can all get behind: The wily underdog (incredibly, Bezos in this scenario), pulling the rug out under the feet of alleged extortionists. As one of his main reasons for publishing, he writes: “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” A charitable reading will determine that Bezos is being genuine here. A less charitable one might guess that the true reason for the post is personal image control. And it’s true that as a man constructing a veritable surveillance empire, he does present as an unlikely white knight of personal privacy.
Of course, along with his alleged quest to win the right to privacy, Bezos has the double incentive to bolster the superior journalistic quality of his own publication, The Washington Post, relative to The National Enquirer. “These communications cement AMI’s long-earned reputation for weaponizing journalistic privileges, hiding behind important protections, and ignoring the tenets and purpose of true journalism,” he writes.
The PR undertaking on this whole episode must have been an intensive process. But everyone involved can bask in the satisfaction that their work was an unmitigated success. Bezos was a hero. Of everyone it seemed, and particularly the right people – left leaning liberals who might not otherwise look on him so kindly. And this in a week when it was announced that Amazon paid not a penny of federal taxes, and the company pulled out of building a new HQ in New York, due to opposition to the tax breaks it was being promised by the city.
However, it’s arguable how brave this act truly was. An intensely private person such as Bezos would surely have rather avoided the whole episode, but whether these pictures and allegations would have truly cost him much is a matter of debate. While a “below-the-belt selfie—otherwise colloquially known as a ‘d*ck pick’” (as described in Pecker’s email) would probably be considered embarrassing, it’s not emasculating – in fact the whole scenario fits neatly within the time-old narrative of the adulterous, red-blooded male caught behaving badly.
The post was the result of a calculation that the world imagining Bezos in a state of deshabille wouldn’t harm him too much. After all, in a world where virility can actually bolster public perception of (male) leaders, discussion of Bezos’ ‘semi-erect manhood’ will likely do little to impact his popular impression as a good businessman. One needs look no further than President Donald Trump to see how little transgressions of this nature impact on men’s ability to retain positions of power.
All told, this increased scrutiny on the personal life of Bezos has arrived an increasingly critical juncture for Amazon as a company. The Everything Store is expanding into an empire with strengthening links between the US government and army, as simultaneously public opprobrium for tax-dodging tech giants is ramping up.
Experts asked to speculate denied the importance of the whole charade for the future of Amazon, but these surely ignore the overwhelmingly positive public perception Amazon enjoyed in the states up until late last year. Incredibly, a 2018 survey found that Amazon is rated as the most trusted institution in America following the US army. Amazon has benefited from public perception as a ‘likeable’ brand, and it could be dangerous if that perception begins to falter.
Unlike Facebook and Google, Amazon has many competitors in the commercial space – namely just about every physical and online store in the world. If they fell too far from public favour, they may see greater ramifications than other tech giants, at least in the consumer facing sphere.
And it’s unlikely that Bezos further occupying the spotlight will improve the company’s standing. He has demonstrated what some might construe as decisive leadership in the past – mainly in the form of strong arming local and state governments such as Seattle and Texas into dropping reformative tax measures. Most recently, instead of agreeing to sacrifice the tax breaks Amazon had been offered by the state of New York to set up an HQ2, the company chose not to break from its ideological standpoint on taxes and instead, rather petulantly, up and leave.
However, despite his decisiveness behind the scenes, Bezos has typically been more elusive in person. It was noted during the negotiations with New York on developing HQ2 that he was not a physical presence during the groundwork-laying process. Instead, he called on his chief deputy, Jeff Wilke, to contact local officials to wish them Happy Thanksgiving, and policy and real estate execs were tasked with representing the company at a series of turbulent public hearings. Could the reason for this reluctance and his desire for privacy be partly motivated by the simple acknowledgement that Bezos is not a particularly likeable or charismatic figure?
Last week, the New Yorker interviewed journalist Brad Stone, the author of Bezos’ biography, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (which predictably, Bezos doesn’t approve of). He was asked whether Bezos might have noticed how clueless other tech CEOs have come across recently and if he may have published the Medium post in an attempt to create a different, more in-touch image?
Stone replied, “I don’t think that is really on his radar. He certainly doesn’t ignore them, but I don’t think he crafts his public image in relation at all to anyone else. I think it’s a combination of what’s best for Amazon and what’s best for him, and, in some cases, what’s the right thing to do.”
Clearly, Bezos operates as a maverick, which makes it hard to guess what’s next. Might he develop a taste for the limelight and increasingly engage in tabloid bating behaviour? Or will this whole debacle burn him into permanent retreat? Will he end up marrying Sanchez? Or can we expect a procession of celebrity girlfriends to waltz through the wings?
His reticence up until now makes it difficult to speculate, but the events of the past few weeks signal we could be in for an uncomfortable ride. We’ve all pictured his nudes, but is the world ready for Bezos laid bare?