Should companies speak up about social justice? | The Tylt
Should companies speak up about social justice?
In today's world, social capital is all companies covet. Successful businesses have huge followings made up of consumers and fans and that is a dramatic change form the past, where an audience was simply customers and future customers. Now, companies and brands are synonymous, and the public holds brands to a certain standard, regardless of whether or not they are direct consumers of that brand's products.
In this environment, brands act as public figures, each with their own voice and opinions. As such, these brands have a responsibility to express these opinions to the public. With so much reach, it would be unethical to remain silent when relevant issues strike their audience. As Forbes's Josh Bersin puts it:
While it may not always be easy to decide what position to take on a topic, I suggest now is a time you have to speak out...Your employees, customers and shareholders will respect it.
But some see companies' new-found social voices as insincere. Many feel that by offering an opinion on crucial cultural conversations, brands are hijacking movements for the sake of selling products–committing the ultimate sin of capitalism.
As the Washington Post's Sarah Halzack wrote in 2015, when the trend of companies speaking out was just beginning:
This shift is not just a feel-good measure, analysts said, but often good business.
Regardless of where the heart of a company is, there's no question that every single action a brand takes is related to achieving their bottom line. Companies want your support, and they know that in the age of culture wars, they have to speak out about social and political issues in order to get it. In doing so, they cheapen the conversations vital to humanity's progress.
In 21018, Nike shocked investors, consumers and fans alike by making Colin Kaepernick the face of their new "Just Do It" campaign. CBS Sports' Pete Blackburn explains the significance of Nike's historic move:
The message clearly alludes to Kaepernick sacrificing his career as an NFL quarterback (at least over the past few years, anyway) after peacefully protesting racial injustices and police brutality in America by kneeling during the national anthem prior to games -- a gesture that sparked plenty of criticism and also sparked major social discussion and a cultural movement across the sports landscape.
As The New Yorker's Jelani Cobb explains, by choosing Kap for the face of its advertisement, Nike not only sparked conversation but acknowledged the direction of sports culture at large–a direction toward speaking up and speaking out. As Nike exists in the sports world, it's only fitting that it contributes to the conversation.
Despite overwhelming public support, Nike not only took a hit in the stock market for breaking with tradition but also received criticism from social justice warriors. SB Nation's Tyler Tynes points out the irony of Nike's ad:
Radical protest cannot be repurposed for the sake of capitalism. Black people being murdered shouldn’t be a vague message behind Nike’s campaign. Ultimately, the brand is injecting itself into a national debate for praise and profit, rather than justice.
Nike had an existing contract with Kap before the ad dropped, but even so, the theme of the brand's ad–"believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything"–doesn't seem to reach far beyond the ad itself. Nike took a risk by using Kap as the face of their campaign, and choosing him should have been supplemented with massive support for the cause they were then evangelizing by doing so. Sadly, Nike has fallen short.
Kaepernick has been on Nike’s roster of athletes since 2011, but the brand has never sided with his protest. Even now, they’ve said nothing of police brutality.
In 2017, Yoplait launched its "Mom On" campaign, which encouraged consumers–moms specifically–to ignore the judgment of others when it comes to things like breastfeeding in public, drinking, and working. As Incitrio puts it:
The purpose of Yoplait’s ad campaign isn’t to entertain the public, but to make people aware of how much moms are judged.
In doing so, Yoplait created more of a PSA than it did a commercial. HuffPost said the commercial was meant to "salute and empower parents." Yoplait succeeded in taking a relevant issue and using its platform to educate the masses.
But some companies continue to miss the mark. Pepsi famously featured Kendall Jenner in a 2017 commercial that was eventually pulled. In the ad, Jenner plays a model who observes a protest and decides to join. She eventually hands a can of Pepsi to a police officer, which of course ends the protest with joy and unity.
The ad was criticized across the board to co-opting legitimate and ongoing protests for the purpose of selling soda. In the midst of real, painful racial injustice, Pepsi offered its answer: soda can solve anything. The public disagreed.
Gillette also faced criticism in early 2019 when it launched an ad encouraging men to change their behavior for the better. Vox's Kaitlyn Tiffany writes of the ad:
...it is inherently nonsensical to use feminism to sell men’s grooming products, or any products, as feminism is a political movement bent on dismantling current structures of power, which likely includes multibillion-dollar corporations like Procter & Gamble.
When companies join social movements, they piggy back off of valid social conversations not for the greater good, but for their own gain. As The Tylt's Politics Editor, Cait Bladt wrote for Paste Magazine, there is:
...obvious irony of using a liberal social movement that has largely eschewed capitalism to structure an advertisement