Zhu: The commodification of activism by self-interested corporations

Caroline Zhu, Staff Reporter

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When did corporations start taking stances on cultural and political movements? When it started to seem profitable to do so. Today, we see some companies put forth genuine efforts to give back to communities and to their consumers, while others put forth hollow advertising that supports social movements. Worse than that, though, is when companies support harmful political systems through their inaction. Such behavior from corporations cannot be allowed to continue, but the question still remains: What power do consumers have to change the behavior of the producers?

Take Ben and Jerry’s, for example. From racial justice to gender equality, Ben and Jerry’s lists a significant amount of “Issues We Care About” on their marketing material. They donate to charities and causes run by or heavily influenced by the people those causes affect, and they seem to do their research when deciding what causes to support and how to support them. The effort feels genuine because they defer to those who champion these causes and there is a relative lack of advertising directly marketing the causes they support. Although they still advertise to direct revenue to a cause and raise awareness, they are not promoting products to raise awareness of their brand but rather for the cause itself.

As such, we can start to define ethical and genuine support as a respect for the cause that the company supports and the acknowledgement that what is important is not that the company is supporting these movements, but that these movements exist in the first place and require the community’s support.

Alternatively, a variety of other corporations have tried and failed to market themselves based on social movements because they did not direct the attention away from their brand and toward the cause they supposedly supported. Consider Pepsi, whose ill-advised commercial in early 2019 starring Kendall Jenner reflected a profound misunderstanding of what was shown to be a nameless protest. They pandered to the police force by showing that the officers involved are, indeed, human, and that they are able to connect with the protestors over a can of soda. This commercial trivialized and oversimplified the many social movements that have swept the nation. From the widespread police brutality that defined 2015 and the Ferguson protests, to the continual downplaying of the climate march a few weeks ago, the causes that are defining a generation are not and should not be the focus of corporations aiming to relate to the youth. To do so only reflects a deeply insensitive and ignorant view of these important, serious social movements.

However, approaching this issue from the perspective that these corporations only aim to market their product is also reductive. Ultimately, capitalism and the desire for profit drive companies to ignore the need for social change; to drive change is to drive themselves out of business, as they lose government subsidies or important profits from other nations.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the involvement of Blizzard in the Hong Kong protests upon their removal of a pro-Hong Kong Hearthstone player who vocally supported the Hong Kong protestors in public, and their silence on the overall matter. Those who remain neutral in times of conflict like this ultimately only support the side with the greater resources and the greater influence, and act in self interest.

This is only worsened when considering the concurrent progress in technology that makes us increasingly wary of how government and other forces will contract with technology companies to obtain user data and other sensitive information.

Perhaps this is a naive argument, but it has to be made. Otherwise, we make ourselves complicit in the very same crimes that corporations are guilty of: Why do we not hold corporations to ethical standards? Why are they allowed, time and time again, to generate increasingly dangerous effects?

One answer is, quite obviously, that there is no single agreed upon ethical standard to uphold. It is a valid statement, but when nations like China repeatedly commit human rights violations, we must hold these corporations responsible for their actions that support countries like China, who currently hold power.

However, this seems to indict corporations either way—if they support activist causes, their messages are hollow and self-serving, and if they remain neutral or take actions to silence those who support protestors, their actions promote the ideals of a nation whose actions are questionable at best. What are companies to do?

Ultimately, all we can say is that we, as a society, must remain vigilant at holding organizations to task in their actions. Ben and Jerry’s is a wonderful example of a company that holds social issues aloft, and one that is able to defer to others when the company can and should not serve as a spokesperson for a given movement. Although many corporations act only in self-interest, strong pushes in the right direction from their consumer base can shift those self-interested goals to goals that match those of their communities and their consumers.