The Importance of Brand Activism

This week, we’ve been delighted to have Phoebe Ní Dhonaill, a Transition Year student at Coláiste Mhuire in Cabra, on work experience with #TeamAlice. Here, Phoebe shares her views on how high-profile individuals and brands can – and should – engage in activism...

In the early 2000s, influential people such as musicians and brands were strongly advised to remain silent on political or social issues to avoid backlash. If celebrities did choose to speak up, they were blacklisted.

Nobody experienced this wave of hatred quite like The Chicks (formally known as The Dixie Chicks). In 2003, while opening their world tour in support of their sixth studio album, ‘Home’, Natalie Maines, lead singer of the band, expressed her distain for the then US President, George W. Bush, and his decision to send US troops to Iraq. Maines stated: “Just so you know, we do not want this war, this is violence. We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas”.

This statement caused an unprecedented amount of hate towards the band. They were blacklisted from radio, with thousands of people calling for them to be removed from radio catalogues; their records were burned and destroyed by fans; and they received endless amounts of hate mail, including death threats, with band member Emily Strayers’ gate being smashed apart.

Two days after the incident, Maines released a statement on the band’s website where she doubled down on her criticism of President Bush, saying, “I feel the president is ignoring the opinions of many in the US and alienating the rest of the world. While we support our troops, there is nothing more frightening than the notion of going to war with Iraq and the prospect of all the innocent lives that will be lost”.

This statement was deemed to be extremely controversial, with public opinion becoming even more furious with the band, so much so that Maines released another statement two days later were she formally apologised to President Bush. Despite this, public opinion of The Chicks was already tarnished, as conservative listeners completely turned on the band, shocked that they didn’t share the same political opinions as them.

This ‘scandal’ was a turning point for mainstream media, especially country music stars, as it was the first time the internet was used to ‘cancel’ a celebrity or group for having an unpopular opinion. This had a major impact on how other celebrities, particularly young, country singers spoke about political issues. From then on, they generally tried to completely avoid them.

The Political Opinions of Taylor Swift
Country singer and popstar Taylor Swift is a prime example of the effect this incident had on celebrities at the time. Debuting in 2006, just three years after the scandal caused by The Chicks’ on-stage remarks, Swift refused to speak about any political topics. In an interview with Time, she is quoted as saying: “I don’t talk about politics because it might influence other people”.

At this time, Swift’s silence was taken by neo-Nazis as support for their cause. They claimed her as one of their own, calling her an ‘Aryan Goddess’ and declaring that she was waiting for President Trump to make it safe for her to share her political views.

Swift didn’t address these claims, nor did she address her political views until 2018, where she endorsed Democrat Phill Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for the House of Representatives.

After years of silence and plenty of backlash, the public were extremely surprised at Swift’s statement and her public endorsement of two Democrat candidates. Her statement was generally received well. However, the alt-right community were extremely upset and branded Swift a ‘traitor’. Notably, President Trump responded to Swift’s statement, claiming he liked her music “25% less”. In response, Swift and her team added a 25% discount on sales through her website.

The interesting question here is: what caused Swift to break her 12-year-long political silence, and when did public opinion on celebrities giving political opinion change so rapidly and so drastically?

HipHop and Political Activism

HipHop as a genre has always had strong ties to political activism, with artists such as 2Pac and Eminem incorporating their left-leaning political views into their lyrics. In a single from 2Pac’s greatest hits album, called ‘Changes’, for example, he references the war on drugs and the treatment of black people by the police.

HipHop, as a music style, was mainly popularised by black and brown artists speaking about social issues facing them such as racism and police brutality. This type of music steadily gained popularity and, with the rise of social media, the messages being shared within songs like ‘Changes’ or ‘High for Hours’ by J. Cole (a song that touches on the hypocrisy of the USA claiming to be ‘the land of the free’ while enslaving black people) started to reach much larger audiences. Being able to easily hear directly from people affected by core injustices gave society new perspectives that they might not have had otherwise.

The rise of social media also gave other marginalised groups a platform to speak out against injustices. One of the first accounts of social media facilitating activists to communicate and create change was during 2006 with the use of Myspace. In 2005, the House of Representatives passed a Bill that increased restrictions on immigration and undocumented immigrants. Students throughout the United States used Myspace and emails to coordinate walkouts, where they left school to protest the Bill. In May of that year, social media was again used to stage the Great American Boycott. Immigrants without documents didn’t go to work or school, with over 1 million people joining the boycott across the United States. Thousands of businesses closed for the day as a result and, ultimately, the Bill was denied by the Senate. This proved the impact social media has on finding people who support the same cause as you and connecting with them while also being able to spread information quickly.

Black Lives Matter

A more recent and very prominent example of activism through social media is the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Founded in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi following the acquittal of George Zimmerman after he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter Foundation fights to end violence and systemic racism against black people across the USA and the United Kingdom.

The Black Lives Matter movement exploded across social media in May 2020 after George Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin. The graphic video of Floyd’s murder blew up on social media and caused outrage, while also sparking protests across the globe. Research and statistics prove the impact social media has had on social issues such as Black Lives Matter. For example: daily visits to the Black Lives Matter Wikipedia page increased by 10 times from August to December 2020.

Brand Activism

Brand activism, by definition, is a business’s efforts to promote, impede or direct social, political, economic, and / or environmental reform or stasis, with the desire to promote or impede improvements of society.

Brands such as Ben & Jerrys have been heavily praised for their activism in general, but specifically surrounding their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. In July 2020, Ben & Jerrys released a statement denouncing racism. They said: “Unless and until white America is willing to collectively acknowledge its privilege, take responsibility for its past, and the impact it has on the present, and commit to creating a future steeped in justice, the list of names George Floyd has been added to will never end. We must use this moment to accelerate our nation’s long journey towards justice and a more perfect union.”

As well as this statement, in October 2019, Ben & Jerrys teamed up with the Advancement Project National Office, a non-profit organisation whose mission is to create free and safe communities for people of colour, to create a new limited ice-cream flavour named ‘Justice Remix’d’, highlighting the need for criminal justice reform. The brand later re-released the flavour in October 2020 to encourage American citizens to vote in the then upcoming presidential election.

Brand founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield seem to be the exception to the general corporate CEO archetype, often personified by the likes of say Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. They are committed to creating a company that reflects their beliefs as people. As a company, Ben &Jerrys have supported many organisations (for example Childline), as well as supporting different causes outside of their organisation, such as protesting oil drilling in the Atlantic National Wildlife Refuge with Greenpeace and Alaska Wilderness. The two company founders even got arrested in 2016 at a Democracy Awakening Protest focused on voting rights.

While many other brands have made statements on social and political issues over the years, they haven’t all been celebrated in the way Ben & Jerrys are.

The NFL (the National Football Leage in the US), for example, faced a major backlash in 2020 for labelling the anti-racism actions of American footballers Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid as “performative” and “hypocritical”. In 2016, Kaepernick had begun to kneel during the national anthem at the start of NFL games – as his way of protesting police brutality and racial inequality in the US. When asked why he refused to stand during the national anthem, he said: “I am not going to stand up and show pride for a flag in a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

In September 2016, his teammate, Eric Reid, joined Kaepernick in this protest. Both players moved away from their team at the end of the season and haven’t played a professional game since. Both have had initial interest from other teams but, once asked if they would continue the protest, teams have gone in other directions.

Following a public backlash, meanwhile, the NFL apologised for “not listening to players, in regard to racism” and stated that the NFL condemns racism and systematic oppression against black people.

Brand Activism Tips

Given the mixed public reaction that greets brand activism, and the commercial risks, it is understandable that brands can be very hesitant to speak out. There are so many different things that could go wrong: what if we say the wrong thing? What if we face a major backlash?

If your brand is considering engaging in activism, make sure to follow these steps.

  1. Do your research: Having information that comes from a reliable source is so important yet so many brands have knowingly and unknowingly spread mis / disinformation. Take your time and research not only the topic you’re speaking on but also research the sources from which you’re getting your information. Don’t rush!
  2. Be authentic and listen to affected voices: Do not jump on a brand activism bandwagon, declaring your green credentials or your support for a social cause – UNLESS you truly and meaningfully are aligned with that cause and are taken actions, internally and externally, to progress it. Topics such as racism and immigration are so sensitive and not only listening, but also hearing, marginalised people and what they have to say about these topics is important because it gives perspective that may not be available from people who are not directly affected. Authenticity and the inclusion of the voices of those directly affected by an issue are what separate an impactful response from a poor response.
  3. Finally, be open to criticism. Mistakes can happen, no matter how much research and preparation you have done. The important thing is how you learn from these mistakes and prevent them from happening again.

At the end of the day, the goal of most progressive activists is that every person experiences the same quality of life, no matter who they are or what their background is.

Companies should not be silent – because silence gives the impression that they do not care for their consumers or their employees. In some cases, silence is compliance.