The Myth of the Activist Consumer

It is a consumer mark of pride by this point that social justice is what sells.

Millennials are known for a lot of things, the better of which is an interest in civic engagement that goes beyond protests and boycotts. It has become easier than ever to express an opinion in a time when products are being marketed to us left and right. Morally opposed to Trump? Buy Supreme’s “18 & Stormy” t-shirt featuring a composite of the various women who’ve accused him of sexual misconduct. Want to be environmentally friendly? Buy some new clothes made out of recycled plastic.

Undoubtedly, doing so will fast track you into the cool kids club. But please don’t confuse this as having done anything else besides shop.

The concept of cause marketing has been clear since Dove’s Real Beauty campaign launched over a decade ago. You know, the one where normal women dispel beauty standards. Much less is known about Unilever, the company that owns Dove and that launched their campaign. The same company, in fact, that owns Axe, which releases ads like this one persuading men to buy their products to attract women of the very same unattainable beauty standards Dove has worked to undermine.

More than a little bit hypocritical, if you ask anyone.

Nevertheless, it is now trendy to be aligned with social justice efforts. Nike knew this when it “gambled” on its recent Kaepernick ad, a decision that has since netted them billions. For all the fuss about its controversial nature, the act of commodifying social activism was by no means uncharacteristic for the company – and now, it seems, for every company. Nor is it unprofitable, as Lush’s spycops campaign proved: a 13% increase in sales despite massive backlash.   

Is it necessarily bad that, as a whole, we are influencing business toward more corporate responsibility? Of course not. But one look at, say, the Uber debacle back in 2017 does indicate a need to be more aware of what exactly we’re buying into, and if the right move is to be buying at all.

After Trump announced his travel ban on Muslim-majority countries last January, people began protesting at airports, including the New York Taxi Workers Alliance who refused to do pickups at JFK. Uber, meanwhile, hadn’t gotten the memo, and was swiftly punished for it. Its competitor Lyft subsequently announced a million-dollar donation to the ACLU, which further drummed up public support, that Uber then tried to one-up by creating a $3 million defense fund for drivers affected by Trump’s ban. It’s almost blatant enough to be a punchline, let alone a real marketing tactic.

Fast-forward to 2018 and this turf war has become old news. The only people still boycotting Uber on principle are those who disagree with the way it undercuts its drivers, and have the money to choose a better option. Why? Consumers simply don’t have the time to keep caring.

With so many different issues arising simultaneously, the million-dollar question is how to keep the public’s attention. So far, the answer seems to be: throw a million dollars at a socially conscious marketing campaign and jump on the latest political bandwagon. Quite literally, Haagen-Dazs’ honey bee campaign, launched in 2009 when honey bees were a “hot-button issue,” cost a little over a million dollars and earned the company a 7% increase in brand awareness.

Somehow, honey bees aren’t talked about too often today. In fact, there are so many “good causes” emerging every year that the average consumer would not have heard of most of them, let alone the ones that are passé.

For the ones that we do support, what happens after that first purchase? Sure, we might have helped raise awareness. The brand might even have successfully contributed to a good cause. But then what?

When we allow corporations to lull us into a sense of having done a good deed, we forget that the purchase is not the be-all end-all of activism. Good causes are not trends, and it is not cool to be charitable. A savvy marketing campaign does not fix things, just like buying an ethically-sourced pullover does not make us more environmentally friendly than simply not buying something we don’t need.

Alex Holder of The Guardian characterizes this absent mindset best: “If a brand can allow me to carry on living exactly as I was and fuel my social conscience then they can have all my pocket money.”

It should scare us how much this mindset resonates.

None of this is to say that we cannot have an impact as consumers. We simply need to remember that being a consumer is not all we are. Brands should be held accountable, which means that we need to shop with awareness and intention. After all, to be an activist is to act. Want to wear a badge for a cause? Don’t just buy one; earn it.


3 thoughts on “The Myth of the Activist Consumer”

  1. “Good causes are not trends.”

    This, along with your insight that “being a consumer is not all we are,” really gets at the heart of the problem you’re identifying. I appreciate that you don’t treat the boycott as an unequivocally bad thing; nevertheless, you point out some deep flaws. These flaws aren’t with the boycott itself, but with the social context within which it occurs. Advertising and social media campaigns are a blessing and a curse in this way–they can drive a lot of initial interest, but this interest can easily dry up as people move on to the next thing.

    Central to it all is the reality that we live in a world that is constantly attempting to monetize us. We play along and while being a consumer may not be all we are, it becomes the most salient attribute we have.


  2. It is interesting to see how activism and marketing are becoming more and more intertwined. However, I don’t necessarily think that it is a bad thing that corporations are utilizing activism. At the end of the day, Lyft did donate a million dollars to the ACLU- which is a good thing. As consumers we need to understand that our power to purchase can influence corporations to support certain causes, but at the same time we need to become activists so that movements “trend” and then later die down without having made a lasting impact or change beyond awareness. I think it is also important as consumers to be more aware of (and advocate for change against) what some corporations are doing behind their marketing tactics- we love Nike’s stance for Kaepernick, yet we do not call out Nike’s practice of running poor sweatshops in developing nations.


  3. Corporate social responsibility is often suffocating and infuriating in its approach to profit off issue activism. While throwing money at an issue can help in drawing attention to it and gathering support from the vast audiences that corporate entities have at their disposal, it doesn’t serve a substantive purpose in targeting the root of the problems, echoing your point. That is not to discount the impact that boycotts and divestment can wreck on corporate sustainability, but it is urgent to remind ourselves that “being a consumer is not all we are”. We as a society cannot simply shackle ourselves in the chains of the market, allowing corporate superiority to take over while we remain subservient in expressing our voices through our purchasing power. We would still be playing the game of the elitists, but with a shroud of complacency in thinking our individual boycott of a massive conglomerate will have enough of an impact in an efficient amount of time to change the culture of our society, to shift that culture towards one that fights for the interests of the working people instead of protecting those of the wealthy and powerful.


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