The age of performative activism: the marketisation of our social issues

In an era where social media is the most widely accessible platform for individuals to receive information and form opinions, it is no surprise that companies and brands utilise it to target their consumers and bring important social issues to light. Following the tragic death of George Floyd and the subsequent mass protesting and action, there were very few companies that did not show their support in one way or another.

 It poses the question: beyond the posting of black squares and promises of ‘listening and hearing’, what are companies actually doing to promote a more inclusive and cohesive environment? How much of what is being said is to simply promote a positive image of their brand as opposed to taking steps that will result in real changes? I am seeking to find out which companies are actually seeking to make a difference and which ones decide to jump on the bandwagon – simply to improve their brand image.

‘what are companies actually doing to promote a more inclusive and cohesive environment?’

One of the most vocal companies in recent days and the past has been Ben and Jerry’s. They released a powerful statement on the need to ‘dismantle white supremacy’ as well as creating a four-point plan that included detailed steps to tackling discrimination within the USA. The post reached a wide range of audiences – enabling many previously unaware members of the public to become informed on the deeply rooted struggle that black people face in America. Additionally, Ben and Jerry’s is partnered with associations such as the NAACP – highlighting their commitment to actively take steps to facilitate change; and not simply when it is a trend on social media. The impact of these steps taken by Ben and Jerry’s will not be made apparent until the foreseeable future – but it is important to acknowledge an effort is being made.

Whilst it is apparent some organisations are actively taking steps to ensure that their actions align with their words, it is hard to ignore the hypocrisy and hollowness of some. Most blatantly, the National Football League (NFL) in America who condemned the kneeling of Colin Kaepernick during national anthems to protest the systemic oppression faced by black people within the USA. In condemning Kaepernick’s actions, it is hard to take such an organisation seriously when they post statements indicating their support for the movement.

‘Whilst it is apparent some organisations are actively taking steps to ensure that their actions align with their words, it is hard to ignore the hypocrisy and hollowness of some’

Aside from sports, fashion brands such as Pretty Little Thing and Topshop have come under fire for their clear lack of representation in their models and the use of black culture in their advertisements when it fits with the aesthetic they are trying to achieve. It is even harder to acknowledge statements by these brands towards increasing diversity when accusations of racism from individuals at the very top have occurred.

As well as having no real impact if posts are not accompanied with real change, by clogging up our social media pages with futile posts with little meaning behind them, companies are preventing actual resources that will further inform and educate the population from being accessed.

Some may argue that the responsibilities regarding wider social change do not lie with firms, but instead those in charge of governing us. Whilst I sympathise with this viewpoint, I also believe that corporations that utilise black culture and black individuals to promote their products, who have a wide consumer/ support base and a powerful platform also have a duty to committing towards real change. Corporations also have a lot of power to positively influence the decisions made by the government – through using their platforms.

All in all, the support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the overwhelming response to tackling racism at every level has been inspiring in recent weeks. But it is not enough. We have to ensure we hold companies and brands accountable. We need to ensure that behind the social media posts and slogan T-shirts, positive steps are being taken to represent voices of colour at every level – from the models used to promote clothing to the Board of Directors. Otherwise, no meaningful and impactful change towards bettering the treatment of individuals within society can ever occur.

By Roha Karim

Illustration: THEPUBLICGROUP via Flickr

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