A googlier Gordon Gekko? Alex Jordan looks to Hollywood to explore the language of business in the movies.

Picture the scene. Bud Fox, a young city slicker, enters the room. Standing before him surrounded by a mountain of monitors, cigar in hand and shouting animatedly into a phone is Gordon Gekko, the original wolf of Wall Street. 

‘Listen Jeremy I’m after negative control, no more than 35%. Just enough to block anybody else’s merger,’ Gekko snarls. ‘If it looks as good as it does on paper we’re in the kill zone, locked and loaded.’

This moment, taken from the 1987 hit Wall Street, epitomises the way the financial services and the language of business was portrayed in the 1980s and 90s: ruthless, militaristic and uncompromising.

As a social arbiter cinema has always been a tool to rewrite history, and so we shouldn’t necessarily take films like Wall Street as a reflection of an industry that was portrayed as rotten to the core in this period.

But, according to those who lived and breathed finance at the time, the truth wasn’t all that far removed from the silver screen, and what's more, the films entered into a dialogue with the real life yuppies of the City Mile and Wall Street.

‘You started to see people slick their hair back in homage to Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko,’ Andrew Dixon, former investment banker and independent corporate finance businessman told me. ‘For many people those films were a justification of how you were supposed to act and talk in the city.’

‘It’s dog eat dog, eat or be eaten,’ Gekko tells us and so he would have us believe. It turns out many did, citing Gekko and Fox’s characters as the reason that they became stockbrokers.

Other films like 1983's Trading Places shed a light on a vastly male-dominated industry that bred a certain ‘old boys’ mentality, which many would argue can still be found today.

Although closer to a form of collaborative, inclusive language, this chummy lexicon quickly falls apart under the pressure of the trading floor, seen to devastatingly hilarious effect in the film. 

‘Ah William my boy,’ Randolph Mortimer croons as Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine enters the room. ‘Right on time, please take a seat.’

The Duke brothers who own Duke & Duke commodities brokers are the picture of good manners, that is however until they stand to lose money in the open market.

‘Where are you going?’ the Duke brothers bark at one of their floor traders. ‘You idiot, get back in there at once and sell, sell!’ 

But has this depiction of the atmosphere and language of the workplace changed since the 1980s and 90s? Consider more recent films like 2013’s The Internship in which two washed up 40-something salesmen embark on a Google graduate programme. 

Beneath the free lattes, indoor slides and preppy managers there is the underlying sense that business is business and just like anywhere else a buck is the bottom line. 

‘I will not be grabbing a cold one with you,’ head of the intern programme Mr Chetty tells the group, in a particularly memorable scene. 

The interns are invited to raise coloured paddles, red for no, green for yes while answering questions in a seminar about appropriate behaviour in the workplace. The fact Campbell and McMahon, our 40 year old interns, fail so spectacularly in their naive hopes of a good relationship with their peers and managers shows that, at least according to the film, just like any other business, Google is a place where profits come first.

‘No matter the management styles, whether it’s the millennial, collaborative way or old school autocracy, the circumstance dictates the approach and with capitalism the ends will always justify the means’, Dixon says.

Although the language may have changed since the days characters like Gekko, Fox and the Duke brothers ruled, the sentiment of that era still lives on, albeit packaged in a more palatable, googlier way.

This blog post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite, BBH London and the B Team to spark a conversation about language and the future of business. 

Find all the other posts in the series here.

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