The student news site of Hopkins High School

C-Spread: Brand Activism

May 15, 2020

According to Salesforce, 62 percent of American consumers want brands to take a stand on social issues, with 42 percent going as far to say that they will walk away from brands who don’t take stands on social issues. 


This encourages corporate responsibility, which Cambridge defined as “the idea that a company should be interested in and willing to help society and the environment as well as be concerned about the products and profits it makes.” A similar term for this is “brand activism,” a term that has become increasingly used in the past few years. 


“Brand activism to me is a short period of time where an issue is being talked about which makes companies feel incentivized to bring it up whereas actual activism is doing it all the time,” said Lauren Ulvi, junior. 


However, Ulvi does believe there can be merits about companies speaking up about causes, if they have good intentions in addition to marketing motives.


“I wouldn’t say that brand activism is always a bad thing because it raises awareness, especially for the older generation who might be more willing to listen to companies than young people. A positive example could be when Ben and Jerry’s compromised profit and refused to sell ice cream in Australia until gay marriage was legalized,” Ulvi said. 


For Freddy Esters, junior, he believes brand activism can be a step in the right direction, but sometimes struggles to resonate with commercials that he thinks solely use an activist or cause to encourage consumers to buy a product. 


“In the past month [February], I have seen a lot of commercials with black models. Although this is great, there should be diversity in the media during all months, not just Black History Month,” Esters said.


Esters believes this is an example of tokenism, which defined by Vanderbilt University is “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly.”


Prominent historical or current figures that have been critical of tokenism include Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.


“I think tokenism is like brownie points. You don’t have to worry about understanding the community. Meanwhile the company rarely will face backlash,” Esters said. 


This is part of the reason Emily Hawari-Grieder, senior, believes a big problem with brand activism is that there is a fundamental disconnect between activism and consumerism.


With that being said, she does think that there are companies that genuinely want change, naming Penzey’s Spices as an example. However, she is particularly skeptical of corporations promoting social causes.


“Coming from corporations, I do not think brand activism is ever good. For example, Nike did the whole Colin Kaepernick ad, but what have they done since? I am glad they did what they did, but it’s important to not just promote change when it’s trendy,” Hawari-Grieder said. 


Hawari-Grieder mentioned the fast fashion industry as a particularly problematic business. 


“Fast fashion is a specific sector of industry that capitalizes off of issues. I think it’s disgusting how they market certain lines as sustainable, because it’s taking advantage of regular consumers who are trying to be more environmentally mindful, when in reality companies are saying one thing, but doing another,” Hawari-Grieder said.


Although Hawari-Grieder thinks it is important to research what business one supports, she also is wary of corporations using the guilt of customers as a strategy to avoid taking any responsibility. 


“I think people defend companies so much because of consumer guilt, instead of supporting laws and regulations that would actually be able to hold these corporations accountable. That’s exactly what the companies want, because it shifts responsibility to regular consumers shopping for convenience instead of the actual higher executives in a company,” Hawari-Grieder said. 


Beyond corporations and businesses, Hollywood and pop culture is no stranger to criticism surrounding faux, only-for-show activism and tokenism.


Actress Shonda Rhimes is an example of a critic of tokenism in Hollywood, expressing these beliefs in an acceptance speech at a gala for the Human Rights Campaign, in 2015. She believes she is “normalizing” TV.


“Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50% of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary. I am making the world of television look NORMAL,” Rhimes said. 


California’s annual Coachella music festival is no stranger to criticism, particularly surrounding cultural appropriation. 


“They [Coachella] hire a diverse set of performers, but the owners have problematic viewpoints that are close-minded,” Ulvi said. 


Esters also believes there is an erasure of intersectionality, the layers of identities within marginalized communities, in popular culture.


“I believe companies and media typically ignore that not only am I black, but I am also native and part of the LGBTQ community. There’re times these identities overlap and times they don’t, but I don’t get to abandon any of said identities,” Esters said.


In efforts to promote equality and stray away from tokenism, Esters believes things like website resource pages or referring consumers with organizations dedicated to change are possible options. 


“I think our generation really believes in being eco-friendly and the equal treatment of each other regardless of our identities. Sometimes these issues clash with other generations which may not see things in the same way,” Esters said. 


For Esters, he does not think the overall issue is having dedicated months, but rather the use of those months to gain profit while simutaneously ignoring the real issue at hand. 


“Just because a company sells Pride flags or iconic figures for a month, doesn’t mean that they actually care about behind-the-scenes. If they aren’t practicing what their products preach, for example not taking harassment of a gay employee seriously, they are part of the problem,” Esters said. “The reality is I am not only black in February or part of the LGBTQ community in June; this is who I am.”

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