You’re Not Crazy. A Handful of Companies Control Everything You Buy

It's not a conspiracy -- a handful of giant multinational corporations control almost everything, so put on a tin foil hat like the family from 'Signs'

It’s not a conspiracy. A handful of giant multinational corporations control almost everything, so put on a tin foil hat like the family from Signs. | Buena Vista Pictures

You don’t need to stoop to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ level to be convinced corporations control everything. It seems just about anything these days — no matter how genuine or original it appears to be — is merely another cog in some giant company’s wheel. They control what you watch, what you eat, what you buy, and how you buy it. And a lot of the time, they do it while sucking up your tax dollars in addition to your disposable income.

Business consolidation is a natural byproduct of our capitalist system. Although there are guardrails — antitrust and monopoly protections, for example — a corporation can gain too much power. Ultimately, this hurts consumers as too much market power allows for price fixing and fewer choices.

Most of us know big businesses wield a heavy hand. But it’s the extent to which they wield that hand that can be surprising. Just about everything you buy or consume is controlled by a handful of giant companies. This is hidden by multiple brands and subsidiaries. Let’s take a closer look at 15 huge companies that control your purchases, starting with the things you buy at the grocery store.

1. Nestle

Nestle is one of those companies that catches a lot of heat from activists and the media. And it’s often justified. While Nestle’s name might make you think about chocolate or bottled water, you’d be surprised to learn how many other products the company controls. It includes dog and cat food (Purina and Fancy Feast), ice cream (Dreyer’s), baby food (Gerber), coffee (Coffee-Mate), and even frozen pizzas (DiGiorno). The full list is much longer.

Founded in 1866, Nestle now has more than 2,000 brands, and is present in 191 countries around the world.

Next: Everybody’s favorite sugar water.

2. Coca-Cola

cans of coca-cola

Cans of Coca-Cola | Scott Olson/Getty Images

There’s an awful lot more to Coca-Cola than just cans or bottles. No, Coke has its sticky, syrupy fingers in almost every facet of the beverage industry. Take bottled water, for example. If you’ve ever purchased a bottle of Dasani, you’re buying a Coke product. The same goes for Vitaminwater, Powerade, Minute Maid juices, Odwalla, and Smart Tea.

In the first quarter of 2017 alone, Coca-Cola had $9.1 billion in revenue. It also continues to experiment with new products to expand its reach, such as soda with added fiber and premium milk (Fairlife).

Next: Coca-Cola’s competitor also has syrupy fingers everywhere.

3. PepsiCo

Pepsi sodas

Pepsi sodas | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Coca-Cola’s estranged brother, PepsiCo, is in a similar position. Namely, it’s a gigantic beverage conglomerate that sells any and every type of drink imaginable. But PepsiCo’s range is bigger and more diverse than Coke’s. Under the Pepsi umbrella, you’ll find brands, including Yum! (Taco Bell, KFC), Frito Lay (Lay’s, Tostitos, Cheetos), Quaker (Chewy, Cap’n Crunch), and even Dole. In fact, PepsiCo has 22 brands that in 2016 each generated more than $1 billion in estimated annual retail sales.

Next: It’s not just your snacking that gigantic conglomerates control. It’s also the media content you consume while wolfing it all down.

4. General Electric

General Electric logo

General Electric logo | Flickr

When you think of General Electric, your brain probably conjures up images of refrigerators or washers and dryers. But GE is so much more. You probably use GE products all the time without realizing it. That’s because GE’s stuff powers a lot of industries, including aviation, mining, power generation, and financial services. So, yes, it’s a lot more than just ovens these days.

Next: This company owns your children and you.

5. Disney

Darth Vader on Star Wars Rebels - Disney XD

Darth Vader in Star Wars Rebels | Disney XD

Disney is everywhere. It owns Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It also owns Marvel and the myriad superheroes and properties under that umbrella. Plus, it has theme parks, television channels, radio stations, and the classic Disney characters we all love. Add on a slew of other media properties, such as ESPN, ABC, Hulu (partial ownership), and Pixar, and it’s clear Disney has found a way to suck up money left and right. In 2016, Disney reported more than $55 billion in sales.

Next: This titan loves to feed you your daily media consumption.

6. AT&T

The AT&T logo

AT&T logo | Etienne Franchi/Getty Images

It might be your annoying cellphone provider and, after acquiring DirecTV, your annoying television provider. AT&T is a telecom giant, and over the years it has swallowed up other telecoms to become one of the biggest and most monopolistic companies in America. In this sense, it’s not so much that you’re making a bunch of direct purchases from AT&T. But it’s more like it’s facilitating your media consumption.

Next: Viacom owns Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, and more channels on your TV.

7. Viacom

The Viacom logo is seen outside company headquarters

The Viacom logo outside company headquarters | Chris Hondros/Getty Images

On the topic of media consumption, one company (other than Disney) that controls and creates a ton of content is Viacom. Viacom is all over your TV, even if you never realized it. TV channels, including BET, MTV, CMT, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon, all operate under its shadow. Though it’s not a household name like Disney, Viacom is definitely in control of a lot of the things you see and hear through your television.

Next: But if you want to finance that television, whom do you turn to? Probably one of the big banks.

8. Bank of America

bank of america

A Bank of America sign | Mario Tama/Getty Images

You don’t often think of a bank in the same way you think of a retailer. But in a sense, they’re similar. You purchase products and services from them, whether it be a financial adviser, checking or investment account, or credit card. And Bank of America is one of the biggest and most widespread in the world. The megabank reported $83.7 billion in sales in 2016, and has customers in all 50 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and more than 35 other countries.

Next: Bank of America isn’t the only bank to make the list.

9. JPMorgan Chase

The JPMorgan Chase building

The JPMorgan Chase building | Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A competitor and cohort of Bank of America’s, JPMorgan Chase is another gigantic financial institution controlling a huge amount of capital. In the case of both companies, it’s helpful to look at how the banking industry has consolidated over time. JPMorgan Chase, for example, has swallowed up several other banks. Most recently, that’s included Washington Mutual, Bank One, and Bear Stearns.

Next: But what about how you access your bank account? These days, it’s probably through the software and hardware of one of the world’s most valuable companies.

10. Apple

A Chinese customer sets up her new iPhone 7 during the opening sale launch at an Apple store

A customer sets up her new iPhone at an Apple store | Johannes Eisele/Getty Images

Everybody loves Apple. With devices and gadgets, such as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, plus its line of personal computers, Apple has made significant strides in the computing world. And with Apple’s products used by a significant portion of the population, the company’s insular products and services force you to use them to go about your business. You might pay for services (Apple Pay), listen to music (Apple Music), and buy media (iTunes) you’ll consume through Apple gadgets (Beats headphones and an iPad).

Apple sells over 70 million devices around the holidays, and rakes in billions of dollars every quarter just from its services department.

Next: But Apple isn’t the only tech company with a stranglehold on our wallets.

11. Amazon

amazon website

A computer screen displays the Amazon website. | Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

Amazon has become the go-to shopping destination for millions of people. A lot of customers actually pay Amazon for special shopping perks through Amazon Prime. And it’s easy to see why. Amazon is easy to access and use. It has good pricing. Shipping is often free. And there are numerous other products you can get from Amazon in addition to an efficient shopping experience. Amazon might not control what you buy. But it does control how you buy it.

Next: Warren Buffett owns way more than you think he does.

12. Berkshire Hathaway

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett participates in a White House panel. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Berkshire Hathaway is another company that isn’t exactly a household name. In an interesting juxtaposition, the company’s chairman, Warren Buffett, is more well-known than the brand. Despite that, Berkshire Hathaway has its fingers in all sorts of industries. Subsidiaries include Heinz, Fruit of the Loom, Geico, Dairy Queen, BNSF, Helzberg Diamonds, Benjamin Moore, and a whole lot more.

Next: A household name that owns everything from shavers to laundry detergent. 

13. Procter & Gamble

tide detergent

Tide detergent is for sale at Wal-Mart. | Megan Elliott/The Cheat Sheet

Procter & Gamble is yet another mammoth conglomerate that controls a huge number of brands and products, maybe unknowingly to the average consumer. The company’s vast swath of brands is unrivaled. Seriously, half of the stuff in your house is probably made by this single company. Some of those brands include Gillette, Old Spice, Oral B, Tide, Tampax, and Vicks.

Next: P&G isn’t the only company taking over your common household goods.

14. Unilever

The Unilever logo

The Unilever logo | Lex Van Lieshout/AFP/Getty Images

Procter & Gamble’s impressive lineup is hard to match, but Unilever can rival it. Unilever, too, has likely managed to find its way into every cupboard and closet in your home. Look through the list: Axe, Knorr, Lipton, Dove, Country Crock, Popsicle, Q-Tips, and much, much more. Unilever has found a way not only to sell you foods, but also the products needed to clean up afterward.

Next: The ultimate health care consumer goods company.

15. Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson's building

Johnson & Johnson building | Cristina Arias/Cover/Getty Images

Like Procter & Gamble and Unilever, Johnson & Johnson wields a heavy hammer when it comes to consumer products — specifically, those in the health care sphere. From shampoo to surgical devices, Johnson & Johnson does it all. Here’s a quick rundown of some of its bigger brands: Band-Aid, Coach, Neutrogena, REACH, Visine, Splenda, and even Nicorette.

Johnson & Johnson has over 125,000 employees in 60 different countries. Founded in 1886, the company doesn’t appear to be leaving households anytime soon.

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