When Activism Is "Trendy" By Shaan Khan

Illustration by Emily Takara

In recent years, activism has been growing more and more popular as American citizens take up action against the humanitarian crises and injustices society faces.

In simple terms, activism is the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change. With resources such as social media at people’s disposal, infinite amounts of information can be shared with the whole world in just a few clicks. Due to the ease of accessibility of information, activists have gone from smaller groups to entire societies of people networked through. Whether it be the support of the Black Lives Matter movement revitalized by the death of George Floyd, the split in the country during election season or warnings about climate change, activism is everywhere. For better or worse, due to a large amount of activism throughout daily life, performative and corporate activism have now entered the spotlight as well.

Corporate activism is when a company takes a public stance on an issue to bring social or legal change. Some examples of corporate activism are when Patagonia printed tags on shorts for sale stating, “Vote the A**holes Out” to garner attention about the need to oust the politicians who disregard climate change. Another example is when Nike posted an ad of 49ers quarterback-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick.

Although corporate activism can be viewed in a positive manner as companies supporting change, one could question the intentions of some acts of corporate activism.

The Nike ad featured the slogan, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”

This was referencing how Kaepernick kneeled when the national anthem was played during football games to protest racial injustice. After several instances of this, he was let go from his team, resulting in him sacrificing everything for something he believes in, like the ad states. Although corporate activism can be viewed in a positive manner as companies supporting change, one could question the intentions of some acts of corporate activism, and even go as far as simply calling them performative activism instead.

Performative activism is when someone superficially advocates for social or political change with motives other than furthering the cause. Due to this, performative activism, or “slacktivism,” typically ends up as an empty gesture. One large example of performative activism took place in June on Instagram under the title of Blackout Tuesday as a result of the outrage caused by the death of George Floyd. This event entailed countless celebrities and people posting black squares on Instagram to protest police brutality and racism. However, this led to relevant information and news on the app being blocked out by black squares, which resulted in Blackout Tuesday becoming an empty gesture that caused more harm than good. Following the protests, many companies and people posted messages online saying they wholeheartedly support the BLM movement. However, many people viewed these as empty gestures because the people and companies had never actively participated in any movements for these causes before it was “fashionable” to do so.

In total, 69 percent of Americans said that they believed the companies had only made statements due to pressure from society.

The important question is if performative and corporate activism are effective. In July, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey to examine how many people thought it was necessary for companies to publicly support the BLM movement. Fifty-one percent of people thought it was somewhat or very important while 48 percent of people said it was not very important or not important at all. While 58 percent of white Americans said it was not important, only 25 percent of African Americans said the same. This shows that although the American people’s views on activism are split roughly in the middle, taking races into account there is a large difference of opinion. This leads to the question of whether certain cultures find corporate activism to be more or less important. Even though the majority of people thought that it was important, they also thought that the companies’ intentions were not completely devoted to the cause. In total, 69 percent of Americans said that they believed the companies had only made statements due to pressure from society.

Ultimately, many of the causes companies have advocated for have benefited from the publicity and support they gained from corporate statements. Still, corporate and performative activism cannot be labeled as simply good or bad for society. In cases such as the Colin Kaepernick ad, one could argue that it brought more benefits than drawbacks. Although Nike had a significant increase in sales after the release of the ad and did make a profit from it, the ad also brought more publicity and recognition to the movement against racial injustice. However, there are also instances where corporate and performative activism ends up doing more harm than good. An example of this can be seen when looking at the gas company Shell. While they are publicly setting up several initiatives for environmental sustainability, they are at the same time spending millions of dollars lobbying against climate change policies. By publicly setting up these initiatives they are setting up a do-gooder facade for the public to see while they are behind the scenes dismantling everything they supposedly fight for. This leads to more harm than good because Shell is simply using corporate activism to mask how they are actually trying to stop climate change from being dealt with.

Overall, as long as the public is wary of companies’ true intentions when they promote an important cause or movement, corporate activism can be a helpful tool for giving credibility and attention to movements. Although it can be an empty gesture that takes away from the true movement due to people’s intentions to further their own brands, performative activism in the right circumstances can yield positive results.