Brands are not activists, altruistic or “allies”, despite their efforts to suggest otherwise via strategically crafted campaigns, social media content and corporate social responsibility agendas. Since 2015, as part of my research on the media and digital experiences of Black women in Britain, I have been exploring how brands attempt to perform a proximity to Black people and endeavour to position themselves as supporters of Black social justice activism.
There is nothing new about commodity activism and brands attempting to align themselves with certain social justice movements when trying to amplify and alter their own commercial image (Mukherjee and Banet-Weiser 2012). However, in recent years, an increasing number of brands have specifically attempted to (re)present themselves as being invested in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and Black liberationist grassroots activism.
In previous work on “woke-washing”, I have examined “how brands (mis)use issues concerning commercialised notions of feminism, equality and Black social justice activism as part of marketing that flattens and reframes liberationist politics while upholding the neoliberal idea that achievement and social change requires individual ambition and consumption rather than structural shifts and resistance” (Sobande 2019, p. 1). Since writing that last year, I have noticed a sharp rise in examples of such activity.
Between May–June, 2020, many brands produced public statements about racism and the Black Lives matter movement, catalysed by galvanising Black grassroots organising in response to fatal police brutality and anti-Black violence inflicted upon Black people in the US, such as George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. From fast-fashion retailers to children’s television shows and toy companies—a multitude of global brands sought to contribute to conversations concerning racism and antiblackness, yet, often in ultimately superficial and opportunistic ways that simply take the form of symbolic representational gestures.
Many associated social media posts produced by brands are far removed from the counter-narratives and dissenting spirit that can be central to impactful types of hashtag activism and consciousness-raising online (Jackson, Bailey and Foucault Welles 2020). While some brands used their social media channels to communicate their so-called “solidarity” statements, others opted for silence. As many brands continue to seek economic leverage by using rhetoric related to Black Lives Matter and Black social justice movements, it is vital that such profit-driven marketing and advertising actions are not conflated with activism, altruism or alleged “allyship” of any sort.
Silence and symbolic gestures
Although brands may be concerned that remaining silent regarding racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement can result in criticism, research suggests that many people would rather that brands say nothing than comment on these matters. Furthermore, when some brands issue statements that they claim indicate their substantial support of Black social justice movements, they are merely circulating language that is vaguely and conveniently linked to corporate equality, diversity and inclusion approaches which do not address structural racism, let alone the specifics of anti-Black violence and harm, including within their own institutions.
The reality of systemic antiblackness and the particularities of intersecting oppressions that Black people experience are often obscured by brand statements that opt for intentionally ambiguous wording that fails to name white supremacy or refer to Black people, at all. In their rush to “say something” about Black Lives Matter, while attempting to manage reputational risks, some brands generate discussions that omit any reference to antiblackness and can distract from the vital words and actions of grassroots Black organisers and activists who are working towards the abolishment of the police and prison industrial complex. A prime example of this is the impact of #BlackoutTuesday which eventually resulted in a flood of images of black squares being shared on social media and which detracted from and disrupted the sharing of helpful protest and grassroots information.
There is evidence that some brands have claimed a commitment to supporting Black grassroots organising and action in supposedly sustained financial and material ways. Nevertheless, it seems as though that many, if not, most, brands, have produced statements to do with Black Lives Matter and racism that do not amount to much more than temporary symbolic gestures. Brands, and more specifically, individuals responsible for their success, care about brand image optics and measures that aid efforts to humanise brands. Symbolic and tokenistic marketing gestures that do not require any radical structural shifts within institutions, or across industry and society more widely, are often deemed to be a relatively safe option for brands that intend to capitalise on social justice movements and try to avoid criticism of their complicity in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
From Pepsi’s “Live for Now” to the advertising industry’s saviour complex
Pepsi’s 2017 “Live for Now” film commercial which featured American model and television personality Kendall Jenner, was quickly removed in response to impactful and incisive online critiques—mainly led and developed by Black people on social media. The commercial crudely tried to invoke images and ideas associated with Black social justice movements, particularly protestor and police stand-offs which were represented in the commercial as being defused due to Jenner offering a police officer a can of Pepsi.
Even within the advertising industry, the commercial has been referred to as a key example of “woke-washing”—alluding to an unsubstantiated commitment to challenging structural injustices faced by Black people and the most societally oppressed (Sobande 2019). The commercial was dependent on a classic white saviour archetype, as embodied by Jenner, who is portrayed as leading the movement depicted in the commercial. Even though that commercial was shelved because of these reasons, aspects of the advertising industry appear to be following in its saviour complex footsteps.
I have lost track of the number of industry articles that I’ve read which unflinchingly frame advertisers, marketers and brands as being the future leaders of revolutionary change regarding tackling racial injustice and dismantling structures that uphold antiblackness. The common lack of reckoning with how advertising, marketing, and branding practices are inherently entwined with racial capitalism and institutions that maintain the oppression of Black people, is galling, yet also, on-brand for the advertising industry.
Brands will not and cannot eradicate anti-Black violence. This does not mean that no brand should materially support grassroots action. Rather, praising brands and positioning them as pioneering for deigning to make changes such as depicting more Black people in campaigns, hiring more Black people at senior management level, or just using “#BlackLivesMatter” in a social media post, is mistaking cynical and self-serving brand approaches for social justice activism, —and results in the trivialisation and erasure of the labour and struggles of Black grassroots organisers.
Jackson, S.J. Bailey, M. and Foucault Welles, B. (2020) #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: The MIT Press.
Mukherjee, R. and Banet-Weiser, S. (eds.) (2012) Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times. New York and London: New York University Press.
Sobande, F. (2019) “Woke-washing: “intersectional” femvertising and branding “woke” bravery”, European Journal of Marketing, https://doi.org/10.1108/EJM-02-2019-0134
Francesca Sobande is a lecturer in digital media studies at Cardiff University. She is co-editor (with Akwugo Emejulu), of To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe (Pluto Press, 2019), and author of The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain, which will be published in 2020 by Palgrave Macmillan. Francesca tweets at @Chess_Ess