Identity and Online Advocacy
The use of social advocacy movements to further brand identity and advertisement has distracted from the original importance of the movement itself. Most of the data is gathered from marketing case studies, these explain the efficacy of Social Responsibility and Cause Related Marketing. Supporting and corroborating information is gathered from news articles and corporate media releases. For what started as an altruistic show of community support, Cause Related Marketing has become more of a parasitic strategy where Brands to piggyback on trending social movements to garner good will from consumers, even while hypocritically engaging in their own ethically questionable practices. While there are still some business who are trying to be socially responsible, well known companies are taking advantage for profit.
Since the advent of the World Wide Web and Social Media, the fast pace and changing landscape of social norms has made it difficult for companies promoting their brand image to stay relevant to their target audience. But within the last 15 years, brand advertising and spokes people have engaged in Virtue Signalling. Virtue Signalling has been known by a few names: Grandstanding, Woke, Slacktivism or the Humblebrag. There are problems that arise when companies begin to promote values that do not align with their beliefs or actions, when brands join social movements, online advocacy, and campaigns on change they become pseudo representatives and role models. And when their hypocrisy is revealed, the damage done to the movement they hijacked can be difficult to repair.
This essay will explore brand name companies using Web 2.0 social media to exploit online social movements for marketing.
The Beginnings of Ethical Consumption
Between the 80s and 90s marketing started to incorporate advertising of social responsibility, called ‘Cause Related Marketing’ (or CRM), which was a marketing took used to align brand imaging to a social cause or issue (Broderick et al., 2003). The focus was the good the brand is doing in the community, and the consumers began to emotionally connect to this altruism and support those brands with their loyalty (The Business of Human Rights). As time went on, social responsibility expanded, and the issues that consumers became focused on were more divisive. Brands now were not just judged on their actions, but also their inaction and purchasing decisions were made on causes like: Climate Change/Environment; LGBQT+ Rights; Black Lives Matter; and #MeToo (The Business of human rights: an evolving agenda for corporate responsibility, 2011). Companies were now seen as beacons of values, and standards, and had to be aware not just of their own product, but also of their suppliers, subcontractors, and ingredients. Even the treatment of their own employees could earn them a negative reputation and affect their profits (Nan & Heo, 2007).
Historical profit increase for Cause Related Marketing (Kenyon, 2011)
By the 2000s, surveys showed that 85% of brand marketing strategies, employed some sort of CRM and that over 50% of consumers were choosing brands that utilised this form of marketing (the rest were indifferent) (Nan & Heo, 2007). This change created larger profits for companies and positively affected communities in some way, it also allowed consumers to pressure companies that were irresponsible by shopping elsewhere.
Mid 2000s saw the beginning of online social media and has brought companies into the spotlight, it has also given companies unfettered access to their consumers. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr gave companies the opportunity to address their audience and gather information.
Jumping on the Brand-wagon
2010 onwards saw most of marketing online with a focus on consumer driven content, or viral marketing where companies were now under pressure to jump onto trending issues that came and went quickly. To have content go viral, it needed to be shared from person, over different social media platforms due to it being interesting, funny, entertaining, poignant of socially relevant (Petrescu, 2014).
Most attempts to create a viral marketing campaign fail, even with the millions spent on them, but with social media it is important to constantly try to stay relevant to an audience with a shrinking attention span.
An example of this is Pepsi’s advert featuring Kendall Jenner defusing a confrontation between police and a protest by giving a can of Pepsi to a police officer. The ad came out in 2017 during tense times between police and African Americans after a string of shootings and protests for Black Lives Matter. In truth, this ad has all the hallmarks of a viral video, but it ended in a negative association for Pepsi because of it, because while trying to be socially relevant, the values Pepsi was advertising were much different to what those who were protesting for change.
Pepsi and Kendall Jenner(Smith, 2017)
The disconnect and the perceived flippancy the ad made of the social movement created a backlash against Pepsi, leading them to remove the ad and pressuring the CEO to step down (Smith, 2017). The tone-deaf delivery of Pepsi’s message destroyed their goal of connecting with their audience, with many believing that Pepsi was cheapening their struggle for social change by linking to their product. Pepsi would have thought that this is an easy target, the main star was an immensely popular social media influencer (Kendall Jenner) and the BLM struggle was trending everywhere, but instead of winning hearts and minds for social credit it came across as condescending.
Starbucks in 2015 similarly fell flat on their marketing with their campaign #RaceTogether asked customers to ask Starbucks’ employees about race to start a conversation (Lobosco, 2015). Again, there was an immediate and visceral backlash against Starbucks by many who thought that this was not the forum to discuss this topic, and the Starbucks employees were not the ones who had the power to make the changes that people wanted (Mainwaring, n.d.).
Starbuck’s #racetogether (Shah, 2015)
To many consumers this campaign felt like another marketing campaign riding the coat tails of the racial equality movement and that the social media marketing was just trying to get more customers into their stores.
There are cases when marketing social trends becomes hypocritical for brands, where the values that they espouse are not sincere.
In 2019 it came to light that 83 major brands utilised forced labour in their factories based in Xinjiang, China, including Apple and Nike (China: 83 major brands implicated in report on forced labour of ethnic minorities from Xinjiang assigned to factories across provinces; Includes company responses – Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, 2020). China over the last few years has been rounding up Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and housing them in concentration camps, these camps (are alleged to) focus on re-education, while being subject to 24-hour surveillance, banning of religious observance and segregated dormitories away from family and loved ones (Ruser, 2020). Chinese officials then say that they are released after ‘graduating’, however there is evidence of these graduates being moved to factories in the surrounding area instead (Ruser, 2020). Apple has not released a statement addressing this current report, and their track record after using factories like Foxconn who “routinely” flaunt labour laws and underpay their workers to manufacture Apple’s iPhone (Oates, n.d.). Only Nike has released a statement that they do not directly source products from Xinjiang, and that they are looking into their supply chain, a standard message from Nike after previous forced labour scandals (Nike’s response – Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, n.d.). These scandals have haunted both companies for years (for Nike since the 1990s), and with both companies claiming to support human rights on their websites and their brand advertising although it seems when it happens overseas and without much visibility, it can be largely ignored or forgotten by consumers.
I believe that there is a place in our society for brand social responsibility, an important one, for it promotes community engagement and is responsible for many sponsorships and funding for noble causes. But for those companies that choose to take advantage of their presence to manipulate social advocacy, with the only way to keep them in check is by boycotting their products. This may not be enough as the constant noise and rapid-fire news cycle have taken us by surprise as much as it has company brands, we are likely to forgive their transgressions by simply forgetting they happened. Perhaps the march towards impersonalism and utilitarianism will continue while brands exploit our attempt at social change.
2019 Statement on Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery in Our Business and Supply Chains 2019 Statement on Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery in Our Business and Supply Chains 1. (n.d.). https://www.apple.com/supplier-responsibility/pdf/Apple-Combat-Human-Trafficking-and-Slavery-in-Supply-Chain-2019.pdf
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Burns, W. (n.d.). With New Kaepernick Ad, What Does Nike Believe In? Forbes. Retrieved March 29, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/willburns/2018/09/04/with-new-kaepernick-ad-what-does-nike-believe-in/?sh=616fec601081
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Hamilton, I. A. (2020, June 3). Amazon workers slammed the company for supporting the George Floyd protesters while still flogging surveillance tech to police. Business Insider Australia. https://www.businessinsider.com.au/amazon-workers-accuse-company-hypocrisy-george-floyd-statement-2020-6?r=US&IR=T
Kenyon, R. (2011). Ethical Comsumerism Report 2011 [Review of Ethical Comsumerism Report 2011]. The Co-operative Bank.
Lobosco, K. (2015, March 17). Starbucks exec back on Twitter after #RaceTogether backlash. CNNMoney. https://money.cnn.com/2015/03/17/news/companies/starbucks-race-backlash/
Mainwaring, S. (n.d.). Starbucks Finds Itself In Hot Water For Talking About Race. Forbes. Retrieved March 29, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/simonmainwaring/2015/03/23/starbucks-finds-itself-in-hot-water-for-talking-about-race/?sh=1426ce7b1b59
McCarthy, T. (2018, September 16). Woke business: have big brands found a conscience or a marketing ploy? The Guardian; The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/16/woke-business-nike-colin-kaepernick-levis-pepsi
Nan, X., & Heo, K. (2007). Consumer Responses to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Initiatives: Examining the Role of Brand-Cause Fit in Cause-Related Marketing. Journal of Advertising, 36(2), 63–74. https://doi.org/10.2753/joa0091-3367360204
Nike Purpose: NIKE, Inc. Statement on Forced Labor. (n.d.). Nike Purpose. https://purpose.nike.com/nike-statement-on-forced-labor
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Oates, J. (n.d.). Four-year probe finds Foxconn’s Apple 11 factory “routinely” flouts Chinese labour laws. Www.theregister.com. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://www.theregister.com/2019/09/09/foxconns_apple_11_factory_clw_report/
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Ruser, V. X. X., Danielle Cave, James Leibold, Kelsey Munro, Nathan. (2020, March 1). Uyghurs for sale. Www.aspi.org.au. https://www.aspi.org.au/report/uyghurs-sale
Shah, K. (2015, June 18). Why Starbucks’ Race Together Campaign Failed [Review of Why Starbucks’ Race Together Campaign Failed]. Eater.com. https://www.eater.com/2015/6/18/8807849/why-starbucks-race-together-campaign-failed
Smith, A. (2017, April 5). Pepsi Pulls Controversial Kendall Jenner Ad After Outcry. NBC News; NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/pepsi-ad-kendall-jenner-echoes-black-lives-matter-sparks-anger-n742811
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The Business of human rights: an evolving agenda for corporate responsibility. (2011). Choice Reviews Online, 49(01), pp.49-037949-0379.
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Young, C. (2020). The Impact of Ben & Jerry’s Corporate Social Advocacy on Corporate Reputation and Brand Loyalty [Review of The Impact of Ben & Jerry’s Corporate Social Advocacy on Corporate Reputation and Brand Loyalty]. https://search-proquest-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/docview/2430682965?pq-origsite=primo
17 thoughts on “Ad-virtuous: Marketable Morality, Virtue Signalling, and the Corporate Hijacking of Social Advocacy”
Overall I found the topic of your paper intersting as the issue of Virtue Signaling has become quite topical over the term of the Black Lives Matter movement with as discussed by McElwee (2014) 85 of the fortune 100 making public statements regarding the movement. At least personally many of which came across as cliche to the movement failing to present a substantial stance on the issue at hand while also as you outlined often outlining their own hypocrisy.
In your paper you state that you believe that it is still possible for brands to be socially responsible as long as they do not use their position to manipulate social advocacy.
My question in regards to this would be where do you percieve the line between a brand being sincerely socialy responsible and a brand being manipulative?
McElwee, K. (2021). The Fortune 100 and Black Lives Matter. towardsdatascience. https://towardsdatascience.com/the-fortune-100-and-black-lives-matter-f8ef1084f7b6
While researching, writing and finally discussing this topic with others I think I have formed my concrete opinion on this matter.
Words without action are empty and meaningless.
Words with with hypocrisy are dangerous and misleading.
Words with Action are informative and progressive.
And Actions without words speak for themselves.
For those who have the knee jerk reaction of making statements, claims or empty gestures (i.e. thoughts and prayers) to whatever is the current trending issue, only add to the static/background noise of our societal discourse.
However, those who are actively trying to promote there values are doing much much more for the community than changing your twitter or facebook profile.
In hindsight I should have included celebrities into the paper as well, they can have the same kind of impact.
But thank you for your insight Kirk, it made me think a lot about what I had wrote.
A really interesting paper! Its very interesting how manipulative some companies can be in taking advantage of a social issue or just a topic that shouldn’t really be used for any sort of financial gain. The Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner was a great example to use.
One example I found which wasn’t necessarily a social issue but was a topic that was in poor taste was Woolworths running a “Fresh In our Memories” campaign which asked people to send in pictures of ANZAC family members who fought in war, which then Woolworths would post the photo saying “Fresh in our memories” and then plaster their logo on.
While I think its important for bigger companies like Woolworths, Pepsi, Starbucks ect, to be aware of situations and with their dominance in their respective markets help out they should stay well away from advertising the companies commitment to try and get a better brand positioning/perspective as more times than not they end up shooting themselves in the foot.
Canna, X. L. (2015, April 14). Woolworths under fire for Anzac ‘Fresh in our Memories’ campaign. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-14/woolworths-under-fire-for-anzac-promotion/6392848?nw=0
I agree William, and thank you for the feedback. I can understand the pressure businesses feel to stay relevant, but it does seem distasteful when it’s only done to drive sales rather than for the good of the community.
I found your paper very interesting. I have always found it frustrating seeing companies pander to their customers just to make more sales. I know around Pride month companies change their logos or wrappers to include a rainbow flag, then the rest of the year they seem to forget about LGBT+ people.
Do you think there have been any successful examples of companies trying to be activists? Do you think any of the campaigns are genuine?
I actually removed one example because I was running low on space, but i’m super glad you gave me the opportunity to talk about them. It was Dick’s Sporting Goods chain in the U.S. when they decided to speak out against gun violence, promote gun control and completely remove guns from their stores, even going so far as to hire lobbyists to push for safer gun legislation. Of course in the US being pro gun control is usually seen as a death knoll for a business and organisations like the NRA pushed it’s member’s to boycott them after it’s decision.
This hurt them a little in the short term as you can see a small decline in stock value after their announcement (See the yahoo finance link below and select 5 year tracking), they recovered quickly however which I believe was thanks to their social media presence and announcements. I think it was refreshing for many to see a company that previously supported gun ownership to change their stance and actually do something about it, and they had a 75% positive resonance with twitter users (sorry I lost the reference for that study).
I originally chose this example because unlike for support of LGBTQ which most companies do without much backlash, supporting gun control is incredibly risky financially, especially when that company’s clientele would be the ones to reject them.
Thank you for the in depth reply and links. I had never heard of Dicks sporting lobbying for stricter gun control before. Especially in America it would be a very controversial action to take.
It is great to know that there are some genuine companies and taking a stand. It is easy to be cynical about any campaigns, thinking it is only for profits.
Again, great paper and the use of images helped cement your argument!
Thank you Tiffany, good luck for your assessment!
I enjoyed reading your paper, and I think you chose an interesting topic. I agree that brands have essentially commercialised certain social issues. A good example is pride month. Many brands will change their logo to a rainbow variant, and release rainbow-themed merchandise, only for it to disappear once pride month is over. (With a somewhat ironic example here being the Trump MAGA hat being produced in a rainbow variant.) However, I do think that—while it does feel like brands are simply doing it because it will garner goodwill from the public—brands do help increase the visibility and exposure of social issues by doing so. If big brands (e.g. Nike, Apple, Disney) visibly show ‘support’ for the LGBTQ+ community, will it help this marginalised group feel more accepted (for lack of a better word)? We see a lot of discussion about the importance of representation in media. Is there a similar effect in brands involving themselves in social advocacy?
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts!
Hey Cathy, thanks for your feedback.
I’ve been thinking about if words are enough to be called support for a social issue. If we call it slacktivism when a normal person just pays lipservice (or just posts a hashtag / changes their profile picture) are they actually helping or just feeling like they are. Activism used to mean that there was an action required and expected to make progress and I think that’s what is missing from these businesses only saying they support something that they don’t.
I think it also helps those companies that are hiding wrongdoings of there own to avoid scrutiny, perhaps they think if they say that they support stopping Asian hate attacks that consumers will forget the horrible conditions that some of their workers live in. If companies support the MeToo movement perhaps people won’t notice the rampant sexual harassment of their staff or the disparity in the pay between men and women.
I think that words without action are meaningless and can be more harmful than being silent on a matter.
Thank you again for your thoughts
Your suggestion that activism requires action is a thought provoking point. While I originally thought that posting a black square on Instagram with the #Blacklivesmatter tag was a futile and slack way of showing support, especially when I saw people I’d personally witnessed be racist in the past, it did circulate the hashtag and make it a trend quite quickly in my opinion. I think that the ease of the act that made it inclusive to all with social media helped the tag trend. While the black boxes did start to block up the #BLM tags and hide posts of footage and news updates, it did peak my interest as it was quite unusual to see a mass of black screen posts. I think it would have been much more difficult for violent images and videos, of the assaults people of colour experienced, to circulate at such a high volume. This is due to the human nature to turn away from confronting emotional media much like people do with slaughter footage or violent abuse against animals as my paper explains https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/05/08/how-can-you-always-identify-the-vegan-in-the-room-theyll-tell-you/
While campaigns like that of Pepsi were poorly constructed and insensitive to the BLM movement, would you say that an increase in media coverage of the brand, despite negatively angled, could be beneficial as it keeps the brand on people’s minds?
Thanks for your insight Eva,
I am torn in my thinking with the ‘spreading awareness’ movement as it’s synonymous for modern slacktivism and for companies and charities has been used to actively embezzle money instead of sending it to where it was needed (see Bono’s charity doing this here: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1314543/Bonos-ONE-foundation-giving-tiny-percentage-funds-charity.html).
Awareness is important, but it can be handled by media and those participating. Instead what is more likely to happen is everyone shouting into the void their support without actively engaging in helpful steps to improve that issue.
My other thought is that these statements from corporations that aren’t involved are taking up focus and airtime to conducive conversations about change. Movements like BLM, MeToo and FreePalistine can sometimes have conflicting motives, beliefs and values which aren’t being discussed. Healthy debate and interaction between those of differing views is being taken over by empty support just to be popular.
Thank you again for your Comment Eva
You make an excellent point about action in activism. Do you think that companies that donate to charities, for example, are providing meaningful support? Or is this also a form of slacktivism or lipservice? Personally, I think that companies that donate to charities are still not doing as much as they could to address the issues they’re supporting.
Interested in hearing your thoughts!
I completely agree, with charities being tax deductible in most civilised counties, it has become more of a financial incentive rather than moral support. Instead I attribute those donations to the governments that provide those deductions.
It would be like a job, if you paying someone to help others, it’s good that the individual is helping, but they are incentivised to do so.
Instead if that person actively protested, worked with charities in their own time and without incentive, then you can see that their actions are inline with their morals.
Thanks again for your comment Cathy
what an interesting take on the matter! Your points resonated with my own experience from seeing corporation indulge in performative activism.
This is mostly apparent during the month of June which coincides with Pride month for the LGBTQ community. Companies will highjack this month and maximize the attention they can get from this moment. It is really disheartening to witness it every year.
But on one hand, don’t you think we need those corporations to talk about those causes even if it is only performative? Given the impact they have, it is a way for causes to be more visible for at least a month.
I also wrote on social advocacy in relation to social commentary YouTube and the voice they have to help online and offline movements.
I would love to have your insight on the points I made.
Performative Actavism!!! What a brilliant term!
Yes definitely think there is a place for responsible social and community causes within brand advertising. The issue I find distasteful is the hypocritical and often empty support for the popular trend rather than stating their values and sticking to them throughout the company.
I also concede that we are fostering a social climate at the moment that requires everyone to pick a side and it better be the majorities side, or risk being cancelled by the mob. I still think that this kind of duplicitous act is harmful to movements in general, when the momentum and screen time is being taken up by companies saying they blacklivesmatter or LBGTQ its precious moments and attention taken away from those who are actually suffering for that movement and what they have to say.
Thanks for your feedback, I’ll have a read of your paper as well.
Hello all, I welcome comments and constructive criticism of my work. Thank you