If you want to feel justified in patronizing a company with a dubious history, calling any negative story against them a “conspiracy theory” should fit the bill. The main problem is that the term, which is rumored to have been coined by the CIA for this exact purpose, is a convenient way to discount valid concerns by associating them with crackpots and conmen.
Still, it’s common knowledge at this point that some companies do participate in shady transactions from time to time—which makes these conspiracies even more jarring. But whether it’s a crackpot tale or the truth staring you in the face, the conspiracies are unavoidable. Here are 10 powerful companies tied to conspiracy theories.
Bayer is best known for inventing aspirin. Founded in 1863 by Friedrich Bayer, this company started as a small, three-person dye company. It eventually became a pharmaceutical Goliath selling aspirin, phenobarbital, and heroin. Yep, heroin, or as they called it at the time, a “non-addictive cough suppressant” for children. Post-WWI hard times forced Bayer to temporarily merge with several competitors to form IG Farben. IG Farben was the company that infamously produced Zyklon B for the Nazis. They were one of their biggest contractors in WWII, and even ran their own concentration camps.
Today’s Bayer invests heavily in research and development, which allows them to constantly release new products. But not everyone is willing to let go of their Nazi connection. A fair bit of suspicion remains as to what they’re selling nowadays. In 2016 Bayer merged with Monsanto and is now intimately involved with pharmaceuticals and agriculture worldwide. It probably didn’t help their reputation much after it came out that Bayer knowingly infected thousands of their own customers with HIV. (Don’t worry, it was in the ’80s).
The NutraSweet company is a subsidiary of GD Searle, spun off specifically to rebrand the chemical Aspartame. Aspartame, more commonly known as NutraSweet, was discovered by GD Searle in 1965. NutraSweet is 200 times sweeter than sugar with practically 0 calories. Unfortunately, its approval process was pretty shady.
It was initially banned by the FDA after a 1980 Board of Inquiry found that this potent excitotoxin led to a high chance of “inducing brain tumors.” This did not please Donald Rumsfeld, who was then Secretary of Defense under Reagan as well as Chairman of GD Searle. Rumsfeld publicly vowed to “call in his markers” to get the ban reversed. With the help of the new FDA Commissioner, fellow Reagan appointee Arthur Hayes Hull, Jr., they immediately arranged to have the ban overturned. (Hull went on to do public relations for both GD Searle and Monsanto, which purchased GD Searle in 1985.)
Considerable political power was leveraged into getting NutraSweet unreservedly approved for the US food supply, regardless of reports of serious negative health impacts. Today, you’ll find Aspartame in pretty much any gum, diet soda, or children’s vitamin sold in the US. Aspartame is even added to some milk brands.
If you ever proposed to someone and decided to show your love by giving them a diamond, you can thank DeBeers for giving you that idea. Started by businessman Cecil Rhodes in 1880, DeBeers is a billion-dollar diamond business with a wild history. It is responsible for the marketing campaign convincing people to buy expensive diamond engagement rings. DeBeers was also hard at work artificially restricting their own supply of diamonds in order to set prices. But wait, you say, aren’t diamonds really valuable? Nope.
“Diamonds are intrinsically worthless.” -DeBeers Chairman Nicky Oppenheimer.
It’s not even disputed that DeBeers is in the habit of fixing diamond prices; they even pled guilty to it back in 2004. While DeBeers today is more focused on the brand and brick-and-mortar store aspect, their horrible history in South Africa, price-fixing, the nefarious ad campaigns and connection with the Oppenheimer family lead many to question the current state of diamonds, and whether that rock on her finger is really worth two-months salary.
Americans take their elections very seriously, and when it’s over, we want everyone to come to a consensus on what happened and go home. Obviously, it rifles some feathers when that doesn’t happen and people will come up with anything to explain why the results were wrong. A perfect example: Dominion Voting Systems.
Dominion Voting Systems is an election services company whose machines are used in many states across the US, including a majority of swing states. Accusations of impropriety have plagued the company since the 2020 election. There are theories that China secretly owns Dominion, the machines can switch votes, and there were reports of senators warning of integrity concerns back in 2019. Dominion seems more than ready to fight back against these conspiracy claims with defamation suits.
Most of the conspiracy-laden companies on this list were at least started by a hard-working businessman before the controversies started. But the Nazi Party straight up founded Volkswagen on May 28, 1937. They called it Volkswagenwerk, meaning The People’s Car Company. Hitler wanted a German competitor to Henry Ford and his Model T — an affordable car that could be mass-produced and show the might of Nazi Germany.
And so with the help of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche and Volkswagen, the VW Beetle was born. After the war, Volkswagen re-dubbed the car the Beetle and became a top-selling auto importer for the United States.
Since then, they’ve enjoyed a fairly benign reputation and the company was even considered a leader in green technology. Except on September 2015, the company sold nearly 600,000 cars designed to circumvent emissions tests. In response to the scandal, Volkswagen Head of US Ops Michael Horn blamed the over half-a-million fraudulent cars on “a couple of software engineers.” We don’t know how far up the fraud goes, but it’s alleged that Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn not only knew what the engineers were up to but authorized the cover-up himself.
When I think Nestle, I think of chocolate — I don’t think of bottled water. But water sales are actually huge for Nestle, despite activists urging them to stop. Besides issues from creating plastic waste, Nestle actually lobbied the World Water Council to change their definition of clean water as a “human right” to a “human need,” and promptly got into the business of buying up clean water supplies around the world in order to sell the water back to the populous at huge markups. These practices have fueled a lot of speculation that Nestle has plans to privatize water.
Nestle was also a big player in the baby formula market, creating ad campaigns that sold it as a healthy alternative to breast milk. When demand in the States faltered, they started marketing formula to Africa in the 70s, which happened to coincide with a huge uptick in infant fatalities. The WHO and UNICEF traced the millions of baby deaths from malnutrition and diarrhea to increased use of formula as now-dependant mothers had only contaminated water available to mix it. Nestle responded by blaming the mothers of the infants who died. Not a great look, Nestle.
Coca-Cola is one of the most recognized brands on Earth. Everyone knows soda isn’t good for you (even after they took the cocaine out of it), but we still drink it anyway. The soft drink behemoth spends millions in brand recognition, in addition to charity, outreach, and public relations. If you’re like me, you’ve seen their vending machines in schools.
Much like the cigarette companies in the 60s, many people are convinced that Coca-Cola, and the rest of “Big Sugar,” are modern-day Marlboro. The conspiracy goes that they secretly fund non-profits to tell Americans that we should focus on exercise, rather than what we eat and drink, to fight obesity.
It’s not the fact that soda consumption continues to fuel the obesity crisis, but it’s the concerted effort Coke has put into hiding those facts. The company has a history of bribing health officials into keeping quiet and pointing the finger at dietary fat.
The first in and best dressed, Google took over the internet search engine market and became synonymous with looking up “stuff.” Don’t believe me? Google it! Between Google, its video-share titan of a website YouTube, and their parent shadow-company Alphabet (don’t speak its name!—it’s like Voldemort or Fight Club or other things you shouldn’t talk about), there are conspiracy theories here aplenty!
Frankly, when a corporation has Don’t Be Evil as the company model, and then drops it, you just know they’re sus. And as many conservatives and anti-establishment voices contend, Google, through the banner of search optimization, is able to silence viewpoints, ideas, and speech that its executives don’t want to spread. In conjunction with whistleblowers, suspicions of Google’s treachery continue to rise.
And then there’s Project Dragonfly, the code-name for the search engine Google built for China. This search engine is specifically designed to track its users and censor any information that the Chinese Communist Party does not want its citizens to know about. Google wasn’t too happy when leaked internal memos shared what they were up to. Though Google now says that they abandoned their work on the project, not everyone is convinced. After all, how much can be believed from a company that sells your data while lying about it?
Planned Parenthood provides health and family services to hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. Yes, those services include abortions, but abortions are legal and considered a normal part of modern healthcare by most Americans. So where’s the conspiracy? In short, it was no secret that Planned Parenthood Founder, Margret Sanger was a militant advocate for eugenics.
The conspiracy comes in how hard her loyalists worked to keep her more self-described motivations a secret. But as her own writings and past speeches (including keynoting for the KKK) became common knowledge, Planned Parenthood was forced to distance themselves from their founder.
They removed her name from their buildings and acknowledged their “contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color” and Ms. Sanger’s well-documented “racist legacy.” If only it ended there. Unfortunately, allegations of for-profit abortion schemes have put Planned Parenthood in a dark light. A history of whistleblowers jailed over their claims only adds fuel to the fire.
Could this list end any other way? Monsanto has pretty much the worst reputation of any company ever and it seems well-earned. Founded in 1903 by John Francis Queeny and named after his wife Olga Monsanto, the company started making the sweetener saccharin. They were the only company outside of Germany to do so. Soon after, Monsanto started its upward climb by producing much nastier stuff, like PCBs, DDT, and Agent Orange (a defoliant—a chemical used to remove leaves from trees and plants—used in the Vietnam War that resulted in half a million babies with birth defects).
Lawsuits eventually ensued, and Monsanto got into the Bio Agriculture business, discovering the pesticide Glyphosate, a.k.a. Roundup, and making genetically modified crops that were resistant to it. Though the EPA initially determined Glyphosate was carcinogenic after reports surfaced linking it to cancer, the EPA later claimed it is not. Many remain convinced that Monsanto covered up the link.
In 2016, Bayer purchased Monsanto, the company that is now the world’s largest seed supplier. Theories abound that Monsanto has secretly taken control over the global food supply and the seed banks. And then there’s the Bill Gates connection. Claims that 500,000 Monsanto shares were bought by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have created even more fodder for the paranoid (or the well-informed). After all, if you control the crops, do you control the world?