Consumers, don’t be blinded by brand activism

Christopher Vye, Staff Writer

When video of the police murder of George Floyd began to circulate, hordes of people consequently broke their quarantines for the first time in months to protest. At the same time, an equally jaw-dropping number of people brought their activism to the internet due to the lingering pandemic. This included some of America’s largest companies.
As “Black Lives Matter. Black Stories Matter,” became the most prominently featured part of Netflix’s Twitter bio, McDonalds declared they, “…do not tolerate inequity, injustice, or racism,” in an Instagram post, while Verizon changed their signature red check mark logo to black for their Facebook profile picture. Notably, this occurred in addition to the corporate support for Pride Month many people have grown used to seeing in the last five years or so.

So-called “brand activism,” (also known as “woke capitalism”) – defined by the BBC as corporations “taking a [progressive] stand on social, environmental, or political issues” – has become a common marketing strategy in recent years. A benefit to businesses, and a detriment to consumers who actually care about where their money goes. Publicly supporting progressive causes provides corporations with the necessary defenses to claim devotion towards realizing change in society, despite the stances not being anything more than a marketing tactic.

Regardless of this mirage, corporate activism has proven itself to be an almost necessary strategy because of just how effective it is. Edelman, the largest public relations and marketing consultancy firm in the United States, found in a 2018 survey that 59% of Americans and 64% of people globally “will choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on where it stands on the political or social issues they care about.”

“I try my best to stay away from companies that I know are endorsing Trump or any organization that is unethical and against basic human rights,” said sophomore Karim Alhamwi, who also fervently agreed that he would feel better supporting companies holding progressive views.

By understanding the minds of consumers like Alhamwi, large corporations have learned that they need to make people believe they truly care about social progress and have deduced that embracing woke culture by publicizing anything that can pass as activism is the best way to do it.

Major companies also know that just issuing statements or posting artsy graphics is not enough if they really want to keep their image looking sparkly clean. As a result, they give themselves leverage using what they know how to use best: their money. In the midst of the largest protests of this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement, tech giants Amazon and Facebook both pledged to donate $10 million to various racial-justice promoting organizations and athletic apparel brand Nike pledged to donate $40 million according to NBC.

While charitable donations like this from multi-billion dollar companies are in no way a bad thing, they become increasingly suspect as more context is applied. For example, all three of the aforementioned companies announced their philanthropy in the wake of controversy; Amazon after receiving flack for not doing enough to protect their employees from COVID-19, Facebook for refusing to fact-check politician’s posts and Nike for initially not doing enough to support the Black Lives Matter movement, only sharing a video warning people not to ignore systemic racism. If these companies were the true crusaders for reform they claim to be, these donations would have been made years ago or, at least, would have been announced following earlier media coverage of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor’s deaths. It shouldn’t have to take the largest civil unrest in a generation for them to have been approved.

In addition to that, it is also worth mentioning that these are some of the world’s largest companies, valued well into the billions and trillions of dollars. So, well multi-million dollar donations from them may seem like a lot to ordinary middle-class individuals, they are really nothing more than a drop in the bucket. 

 “There’s a huge difference between actively doing something to support the things you believe and just sitting back saying, ‘yes I believe that.’ As you dig deeper into these companies, I think you’re gonna see a lot of them advertising that they believe things, but, at the end of the day, what does that mean? Are they putting up a percent of their profits, or are they putting in the man hours [to fight for change?]” explained Christopher Manila, an ETHS Marketing teacher. “They want to have the appearance of being like ‘Hey, we’re also part of a movement, we’re also supporting it,’ but it’s … an afterthought.” 

Generally, this means that when companies choose to take public stances, their actions are more likely to amount to performative activism than anything deeper. It’s not that they’re opposed to social change necessarily, but that they are at best passive in their actions when they could be doing more. It shouldn’t have to take the largest civil unrest in a generation for them to feel the need to get involved. 

Corporations are also noticeably silent when it comes to voicing support for stances that could potentially hinder their profit margins. On issues such as America’s obesity epidemic, there are no rallying posts on the social media accounts of fast-food and soda companies, and pledges to fight it are rarely seen. In addition to this, sometimes corporations will even feign solutions to issues to appear on top of things. When Apple rolled out their Screen Time feature after statistics came out detailing the shockingly high amount of time people were spending on screens each day, they removed apps that allowed for more restrictions from the App Store, according to CNN.

Most of the time when large corporations choose to chime in, it is on less controversial issues that get along well with their images, would not inadvertently hurt their products, and are supported by a majority of Americans. No matter how much a brand would like to claim they are a true progressive champion, they will never be unless they understand and make the necessary sacrifices for their beliefs as any person fighting for them would have to.

If someone truly cares about the politics of the businesses they spend their money at or feels turned off by brands pretending to care, then the easiest way to ensure their money goes towards things they’d want it to is to buy locally. 

Local businesses are more likely to actually have their community’s interests at heart, and, thankfully, Evanston is blessed to have a wide array of ones that do. Customers and employees also have greater potential to affect change within local businesses, so if they lack non-discrimination policies or managers are refusing to give their staff time off to protest for instance, individual’s actions are more likely to have some sort of effect. This same sort of thing would never be able to happen within a large corporation because of how their sheer size makes the endeavors of isolated people’s negligible.

To everyone out there yearning for change, remember that it is not companies and brands that should lead the way forward. It is grassroots organizations composed of everyday people who are willing to put in the hard work and believe in truly making a difference.