Why do brands think they can be agents for social change?
We’re living through an age where we need to take more direct action than ever. But should we be relying on brands to take a stand as well?
By the time inauguration day rolled around, and the sight of Donald Trump raising a small, pussy-grabbing hand in preparation for taking the oath of office beamed out across the world, progressives had finally shaken off the feeling of shellshocked despair that followed his November victory and began preparing for a long four – please god not eight – years of dogged opposition.
From the Women’s March that descended on Washington on January 21, dwarfing Trump’s inauguration day crowds, to the furious protests that swamped America’s airports following his transparently racist Muslim ban, the nightmare of 2016 seems to have shaken us out of our political slumber and compelled us into action. But this renewed spirit of civil engagement hasn’t gone unnoticed: predictably, brands and advertisers have already moved in to turn activism into a marketing opportunity.
A mere two days after he signed Executive Order 13769 (AKA the Islamoban) into being, Starbucks conveniently announced its plans to hire some 10,000 refugees to serve their confusing named coffees in the 23,768 locations it has dotted across the globe. AirBnB declared that it would provide free accommodation to anyone left stranded overseas by Trump’s religious scapegoating. In the Guardian, ELLE UK’s content director and former ad agency creative director, Alex Holder, penned an op-ed titled Sex doesn’t sell anymore, activism does. And don’t the big brand’s know it, which outlined some of the ways that global conglomerates are trying to show the world that they have a conscience. Pepsi’s latest Kendall-starring campaign, maybe the most ill advised example ever.
This renewed spirit of civil engagement hasn’t gone unnoticed: predictably, brands and advertisers have already moved in to turn activism into a marketing opportunity.
But how about coffee maker, Kenco, training young men in Honduras to be coffee farmers in the hopes that it will steer them away from a life of crime. Patagonia, a brand that has, admittedly, done a lot for environmental causes over the decades, closed all of its U.S. stores on election day and urged potential customers to go and vote instead. Not content with giving their soft drinks out to the stormtroopers of Trump’s Evil Empire, Pepsi’s “Refresh Project” issues grants to individuals and nonprofits that have an innovative idea that brings positive change to their local community, all while Indra Nooyi, the company’s CEO, sits on Trump’s business advisory council. I’m not going to go through the entire list because I’m sure that you get the picture.
This tactic is hardly a novel one: “corporate social responsibility” initiatives, to use their official management jargon terminology, have existed for ages as a way for brands to share the wealth around and snag a feel-good marketing hook in the process. The general reasoning behind CSR is that money spent on social engagement is ultimately good for profit, because in a market already saturated in identical products, attempting to do some good in the world is a good way for a brand to differentiate itself in the eyes of consumers that care about that sort of thing. Most people can see through the cynicism, which, some would say, makes any criticism of it redundant, but I would argue otherwise.
There’s this notion that CSR ultimately adds up to some sort of net good, or at least offsets some of the destructive aspects of consumer capitalism. And while that could probably be disproven with some pedantic pie charts and number crunching, it would still miss the point: what’s really problematic here is allowing brands to style themselves as viable proxies for social change.
You would have to be particularly mean-hearted to deny that Kenco’s anti-gang initiatives in Honduras are admirable, but what rarely gets discussed is how the achievements of CSR are often used as a smokescreen to distract from their politically destructive consequences. If we allow brands to lead the charge, then they’re given free reign to define the cause and how it’s addressed. The issue is confined to an isolated playpen where the brand dictates how consumer “activists” can respond to it, which is about as politically engaging as Zimbabwe’s elections.
Buying a Prius might slow the onset of climate change, but it will not prevent it, no matter how good it feels.
What these supposedly socially-minded brands are doing, essentially, is saying “give us your money, and we will make sure it goes to a good cause”. Not only does this conflate risk-free, sacrificially-devoid purchasing decisions with meaningful activism, but it absolves consumers of their civic responsibilities. We’re told that buying goods with a Rainforest Alliance sticker stuck on them “ensures the future of our rainforests, so you don’t have to do the things that you shouldn’t do anyway”, which, according to this slick piece of branded content, means marching out to the Amazon to engage in some comically-misguided direct action. Rainforest Alliance are doing commendable work but it’s simply not enough. It treats the symptoms of the problem, rather than the systematic failures that create them, which can only be undone through legislation. And legislation can only actually change if we actively get involved ourselves, and directly lobby, protest, and make our voices heard.
Similarly, buying a Prius might slow the onset of climate change, but it will not prevent it, no matter how good it feels. All the effort that you invest in shaving the edges off your carbon footprint by skipping showers would be better spent organising support and pressuring lawmakers into action. But that doesn’t happen when we delegate to brands because it deludes us into thinking that we’ve done our part and that those brands are going to do the rest of the work for us. Our ethical consumer choices give us a satisfying pat on the back, neutering our sense of urgency. It massages our conscience and loosens the emotional pressure valve that allows us to comfortably disengage from whichever pressing global issue we’ve thrown a couple of quid towards. But this isn’t a purely distractionary measure: in a subtly insidious way, it reinforces neo-liberalism’s individualistic mantra. It says: “yes, you are the sole master of your fate, with the power to change the world all on your own”, thereby further sidelining collectivism in the process. We should be saying “together, we change the world” and obviously, we don’t need brands to help us, or co-opt our movements, or stick their logos on our protest placards.
Call me a cynic, but I’ve always raised an eyebrow at how closely most CSR initiatives align with their patron brand’s business model. Is Kenco’s priority to stifle gang recruitment or train coffee farmers? Why doesn’t it invest in schools instead of only offering poverty-stricken Hondurans a choice between criminality or menial labour? Is Starbucks really concerned with easing the plight of refugees, or does it simply see an opportunity in the fact that fewer than 0.1% of Syrians stranded in Turkey qualify for work permits? How many of those 10,000 jobs are going to be based in America as opposed to, say, Jordan? Do they open up paths to emigration? Why doesn’t it selflessly fund better facilities for those trapped in bureaucratic limbo on the Hungarian border, rather than offering aid that conveniently dovetails with its modus operandi? Is this altruism or is it opportunism? Buying a coffee isn’t going solve the refugee crisis.
But that doesn’t change the fact that brands will only pick the ethical choice if it also happens to be the most profitable one — which is precisely why they can never be trusted to act as agents for social or political change.
At the same time it would be myopic to completely discount the positives that these initiatives do achieve. It’s easy for me with my cushy new media job to castigate multinationals for applying shrewd business sense to empathy, but the fact is that there are coffee farmers in Honduras who were given the opportunity to opt out of abject poverty and gangland slayings thanks to Kenco. Maybe one of Starbucks’ refugee jobs will serve as a springboard for a desperate Syrian somewhere to better themselves, or maybe it’ll just make life a little less hard for some 10,000 displaced people around the world. It’s difficult to scrutinise quantifiable good, even if it’s stained by moral inconsistency.
But that doesn’t change the fact that brands will only pick the ethical choice if it also happens to be the most profitable one — which is precisely why they can never be trusted to act as agents for social or political change. CSR initiatives are a useful supplement for the greater good, but as we can see from Elon Musk’s abrupt u-turn, where he went from promising to move to China if Clinton lost the election to sitting on Trump’s business advisory council, the corporate class will never risk compromising their bottom line by challenging the ruling regime directly. That responsibility falls on the electorate and people are slowly waking up this fact with great effect: in America, the creators of the Indivisible Guide have copied the Tea Party’s tactics, prompting disgruntled progressives to swarm their local town hall meetings and hound Republicans into submission.
This has prompted some, like hard-right Texan congressman, Louie Gohmert, to avoid these meetings altogether, claiming that “groups from the more violent strains of the leftist ideology… are preying on public town halls” – a timely reminder that brands, no matter how well intentioned, can never be a substitute for collective direct action. Which is what we need to do, right now.