Commodifying Activism

"Nike" by Miguel Vaca licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Via Flickr).

Recently Nike aired an advertisement that sparked a lot of cultural and political buzz. This ad contained professional football player, Colin Kaepernick, a man who has become a household name in political discourse through his protests to police brutality, delivers a simple message: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” But since the airing of this ad, there has been a considerable backlash with a variety of Twitter hashtags like #justburnit or #BoycottNike becoming increasingly popular. But in spite of this response to Nike’s use of a controversial figure such as Kaepernick, the value of Nike’s stock has only risen and sales have even increased. Nike’s promotion of Kaepernick has helped spread awareness of and increase support for Colin Kaepernick, but what right do companies with a history like Nike’s have to be champions of social justice? Nike has a notorious history of utilizing sweatshops and child labor and not only that, but they just signed a new contract with this same league that has collectively barred Kaepernick from playing. This dichotomy between the good and bad aspects of Nike’s support for social justice beg the question: is it ethical for companies to commodify social and political activism? And what are its effects on our societal norms? In the following paragraphs, I will explore how similar ad campaigns have informed their respective social justice movements and if there is an ethical way to market these movements within a consumerist economy.

Activism within consumerism can play many valuable roles: the increased awareness that such campaigns disseminate are one of the most powerful ways for a social justice movement to take flight. One example that has really made the case for this type of activism comes in the #LikeAGirl movement in 2015. In a commercial that was popularized after its airing during Super Bowl XLIX, children were asked to perform actions “like a girl”. And according to Alana Vagionos of the Huffington Post, when the young boys acted out these things, “Instead of simply doing these actions, each person weakly reenacted them, by accidentally dropping the ball or slapping instead of punching”. But when the little girls were asked to complete these actions, they did so with vigor, strength and confidence, making it clear that in American culture femininity is often synonymous with weakness. Vagionos also notes that the phrase ‘like a girl’ is similar to saying something is “gay’ — both are used in a derogatory manner.

Efforts like this, while ultimately designed to generate more profit, can be very productive in shifting public opinion relating to social issues. According to a case study done by D&AD, almost 100 million people viewed the commercial on YouTube alone and prior to watching the clip, just 19% of 16-24 year olds had a positive association toward ‘like a girl’. After watching, however, 76% said they no longer saw the phrase negatively. So from the standpoint of publicity and raising awareness of the larger issues at play, this type of activism can be very helpful.

However, there are many who detract from commodifying activism. While there is potential for positive change through this type of publication of activism, there is also great potential to further reinforce inequality and exacerbate some damaging societal norms. By using movements like #BlackLivesMatter to promote a new product line or a special offer, it dilutes the meaning and value of these statements and obscures views of systemic power inequalities.

One campaign that demonstrates many of the faults in retail activism is the “NIKE(RED)” campaign put on during the 2010 World Cup. This movement sought to increase awareness and funding for programs that combat the AIDS epidemic through a new line of merchandise emphasizing the color red. But Spring-Serenity Duvall and Matthew C. Guschwan believe that this “retail activism” reinforces colonial norms, asserting in Communication, Culture and Critique that this campaign simplifies an extremely complex global health predicament.

They claim that it further obscures the way that western consumers view the people in need of aid. It exacerbates the perceived divide between the aid recipients and the consumers and does nothing to increase solidarity among these consumers for these recipients. They say that this “NIKE(RED)” movement

“perpetuat[es] images of hierarchies that privilege Western consumers and marginaliz[es] African peoples whom the organization seeks to aid […] The ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy positions Western consumers as a powerful force and Third World peoples as passively in need of aid. So, a major contradiction within (RED) is that while consumer-based campaigns use rhetorics of unity, they ultimately rely on the individual, private, and personal expenditure of money that does not promote substantial social solidarity.”

This type of movement is ultimately very limited by its main motive: profit.

Additionally, this simplified view of these issues can perpetuate the issues that they seek to resolve by pacifying these consumer bases. It breeds ignorance about the power structures that are in play and distorts the fact that these powerful activists are still a large part of these structures that perpetuate these problems. Guil Louis of the Lawrentian says that “it seems as if social consciousness has become something that not just these celebrities can commodify, but so too can their sponsors.” The truth of the matter is that when it comes to retail activism, there is always an ulterior motive: the profit making potential of the issue brought about in the advertisement. When meaningful change is a positive externality instead of the primary goal, Louis says that it will “pacify us and make it even more difficult to identify oppressive structures or conditions.”

It is clear that there are both benefits and detriments to this type of approach to activism, but it is important to be aware of the effects that this commercialization has on the movements themselves. Ultimately this approach to activism, while beneficial in some ways, is not enough if it is the only approach to activism. There are a variety of meaningful and effective ways to sway positive social change, and ultimately awareness, especially if diluted by a profit making incentive, can only go so far without action.

Born and raised in Noblesville, Indiana, Cole Martin is an Urban Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies Major with minors in Spanish and Computer Science. He runs on DePauw’s cross country and track and field teams and is involved in DePauw’s sustainability leadership program.