Activism sells, and because of that revolution and resistance have found themselves in quite the conundrum. Over the last few years, we have seen a sharp rise in dialogue, rallies and protests around social issues. However, lately, the fight for inclusion has shifted from a movement to a market. This market is teeming with merchandise—shirts emblazoned with the names of victims of fatal police brutality, buttons that express support for marginalized communities, bags designed explicitly for protests, and even board games meant to teach its players how to construct social movements. Colin Kaepernick, who made headlines this month when GQ announced him as Citizen of the Year, still has one of the best-selling jerseys in the NFL, despite not having a job. All of these tees, pins, jackets and items seem to scream “I am an activist!”
The problem is these items do not scream—they whisper. These commodities are replacing the real work of advocacy, spawning a new form of slacktivism, a term usually reserved for keyboard activism. This consumer slacktivism allows the buyer to parade their “support” for causes figuratively without having to show up in reality, causing harm to the real work that the merchandise claims to champion.
Shirts and pins do not make an activist, nor an ally. The Black Lives Matter movement has 13 guiding principles, yet it is debatable whether people who wear apparel that features the hashtag can name all or even one of these principles. Social campaigns call for an end to the gender pay gap, and people excitedly chime in, citing that women only make 83 cents for every dollar earned by men. If these participants investigated further, they would see that black women make 65 cents in comparison, while Latina women suffer the brunt—earning only 59 cents to this dollar. Anyone can adorn his or herself with paraphernalia from social campaigns, while having virtually no knowledge of the intricacies of the problems broadcasted by these products.
This consumer slacktivism is non-committal and translates to almost no change in the real world. Instead it transforms social issues into a trend: a popularity contest where the winner is the most “woke” person. Just last year, the founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, came under fire for wearing a #StayWoke t-shirt when he had just recently appointed a white male as the head of diversity. (In an Oprah-esque moment during the panel, he announced all the attendees could find the same shirt in their swag bags.) A person’s cultural competency becomes integrated with their personal brand, allowing them to benefit and sometimes even profit from their understanding of inclusion. However, these benefits do not extend to the original campaigns this social capital emerged from.
The commodification of activism converts action into inaction by giving the consumer the illusion that they have accomplished something, fought oppression even, by purchasing material items. This pacifies would-be foot soldiers of the revolution, making it incredibly difficult to galvanize attendance at community organizing events and local political actions.
The corporate side of this phenomenon has even worse implications. Companies have begun to co-opt the resistance. Earlier this year, Pepsi released a commercial in which Kendall Jenner leaves her modeling work to participate in a protest. Many of this year’s Superbowl commercials connoted anti-Trump messages. Notably, 84 Lumber’s ad featured a heartfelt portrayal of immigrants who were stopped by Trump’s wall. Even Google and Microsoft came forward to denounce the Muslim ban. Interestingly, Pepsi’s CEO served on Trump’s business council, 84 Lumber’s CEO supports the Trump administration, and Microsoft and Google both made large contributions to the Trump campaign. In fact, recently Google came under fire for funding hate speech, neo-Nazi sentiments and white supremacist rhetoric through online advertisements.
As brands tout progressive thought and social responsibility, they show where their true allegiances lie when consumers are not looking, exemplifying that this corporate activism is not genuine, but rather performative. These momentary trends toward activist culture, though they may shine a fleeting spotlight on important social issues, are temporary. Brands have shifted toward advocacy because it is sexy. These businesses adopt it in order to generate power, influence, and most importantly, revenue.
Even more dangerous is when social justice organizations themselves fall prey to the lure of cashing in. In April, Black Lives Matter announced its partnership with J. Walter Thompson, a Fortune 500 ad agency that has big-name clients such as Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft and Shell Oil. Black Lives Matter cannot assert that its objective is to deconstruct systems of oppression while simultaneously collaborating with said systems. In the words of activist Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
All of these incidents raise important questions about the future of activism. The entirety of activist work is against commodification and oppression, yet it has been appropriated by the exact entities it aims to undo. For advocacy to survive, it will need to be steered back to its original intents and purposes. We must acknowledge social justice as a vehicle for change and a mechanism favoring action, rather than a something to be bought and sold.