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The Danger of Branding Social Activism

Colin Kaepernick’s Nike sponsorship, Kendall Jenner’s advertising stint with Pepsi, and Gillette’s The Best Men Can Be campaign demonstrate the growing popularization of brand activism. The use of popular social activism issues in marketing is an indicator of shifting consumer expectations and provides a pervasive platform for disseminating social messages. That said, as a commodification of a serious struggle, the positive impact of branding social activism only goes as far as the company is willing to, exemplified in the tangible commitments (or lack thereof) made to the cause. Brands are at risk of minimizing social justice issues by implying that the purchase of a good is equivalent to real social activism. There will always be an inherent tension between social activism and capitalism. Corporations that have long upheld capitalist structures are suddenly creating ad campaigns that seem to subvert those structures, because it is what will bring them the most profits right now. This does nothing to rectify the structural inequalities contributing to issues of social justice.

The rise of brand activism is reflective of changing societal norms. The 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study surveyed 40,000 people in 8 different nation-specific markets to examine the extent to which consumers are belief-driven. The survey found that 64 percent of consumers surveyed take political or social stance into account when purchasing from a specific company, with 69 percent of 18-34 year olds doing so. 53 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “brands can do more to solve social ills than government.” Whether or not this is reflected completely in buying practices, the growing sense that brands should use their power for good and be more accountable can be beneficial for society.

Consumer expectations have put pressure on companies to take stances on social issues, amplifying those issues and the people fighting for such change on international platforms. Gillette’s controversial new advertisement, which challenges men to fight toxic masculinity, has more than 30 million views on Youtube. That is no small number, indicating that Gillette’s international platform strengthened the reach of this advocacy campaign. However, it is unclear whether their decision was for the right reasons. Credited as the first company to problematize women’s body hair and create demand for hair-removal products, Gillette has a history of making advertisements that play on insecurities about beauty, loneliness, and sex appeal. After decades of sexist ads that have taught women that they should shave to please men, it is difficult to take Gillette’s campaign maligning toxic masculinity in good faith. There is a value to newfound awareness despite past mistakes, but it is only convincing if that awareness is backed up with substantial action.

The proliferation of the marketing of activism brings into question the authenticity of commodification. Viewers are left wondering whether the political statement was made because the company genuinely cares about taking a stand for social good or if it was just a cheap publicity stunt. That said, it is arguably impossible to ascertain the authenticity of a brand’s care for a social issue, especially given that companies are aware of the power of a socially involved campaign to increase their profits. Identifying brands that do this unsuccessfully is much simpler than identifying a model socially active brand. Audi’s “Daughter” ad in the 2017 Superbowl, a feminist championing of equal pay, backfired after it was pointed out that Audi employed no women executives. T-shirts sold by Whistles reading “This is what a feminist looks like” sparked controversy after the circulation of a photo of Mauritian women producing them in a sweatshop. No brand can make a genuine claim to fight for gender equality while simultaneously imposing patriarchal structures that continue to oppress women.

Really successful cases of brand activism don’t come from consumers being sure that a company’s motivations are pure, as it is difficult to know what internal motivations exist behind company policies and any personal stance on a political issue cannot be separated from the increased brand popularity that results. Successful brand activism comes from making a legitimate commitment to a cause. Take Patagonia suing President Trump over the protection of public lands as an example. This lawsuit came after continued branding of Patagonia as a company that values environmentalism and the exploration of the outdoors, something that is naturally aligned with their consumer base. The announcement of this lawsuit strengthened Patagonia’s political response because they showed that they are willing to take activism a step further. There is no denying that this move can work to further engage Patagonia shoppers and in turn Patagonia’s revenues, but it can also work to achieve legitimate social change.

To identify what constitutes a genuine commitment to the cause, however, is a tricky task. In tandem with Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” ad, the company has pledged to donate $3 million over 3 years to “non-profit organizations executing programs in the United States designed to inspire, educate, and help men of all ages achieve their personal ‘best’ and become role models for the next generation.” While this may seem laudable, $1 million a year is a drop in the bucket for a company that brought in over $6 billion in sales in 2018. Even more, the intentionality in this moment of corporate responsibility is lacking–Gillette provides little detail on how they select the grant recipients, what the money will be spent on, or how this fits into the larger goal of denouncing toxic masculinity.

The unintended consequences of social justice marketing can be reductive to the real labor of activists. Advertisements that make emotional appeals about deep-seated societal issues conflate the desire to do good with participating in capitalism. The purchase of a product from a multi-billion dollar corporation is not conducive to individual actions against social justice, but marketing campaigns can imply so. Given the intertwined nature of patriarchal and capitalist structures, these corporations often help to perpetuate these harmful realities, reifying structural inequalities. Playing on emotionally charged motifs of father-son relationships, bullying, and sexual assault and harassment, Gillette’s campaign suggests that buying a razor makes a significant contribution to promoting healthier gender roles. Keeping the size of Gillette’s contribution to nonprofit organizations in mind, $3 million over 3 years represents about 0.016 percent of Gillette’s $6 billion in sales. This means that less than 1/100th of a cent of the purchase of a $10 Gillette men’s razor is committed to Gillette’s social cause. On this individual level, this action is arguably negligible, but functions to let the consumer off the hook. Supporting corporate social responsibility is an easy-out way to support social activism. Intentional or not, ad campaigns like this one can discourage consumers from making genuine commitments and minimize the work of social activist campaigns.

As discouraging as this may sound, the emotive power of the ad campaigns centered on social activism can still be highly valuable. These campaigns can be truly moving, and can motivate consumers to act. This desire to be involved is an important thing that we should harness and encourage. Cynicism about branding social activism is important, however, when these campaigns work to placate consumers. As involved citizens, we can’t just watch these ads and convince ourselves that we’ve done our part by supporting responsible companies. We should be skeptical about the commitments each company is making and not take their branding at face value. We need to pressure these companies to do more–in emails, on Twitter, and with our purchasing power. Finally, it is imperative that we remember our own individual commitment to social activism. Supporting a politically active brand is not equivalent to showing up and fighting for what we believe it. Let marketing campaigns that utilize social justice issues serve as the inspiration, rather than the solution.

Photo: “Social Activism