Advertising has changed significantly over time. Aware of the technological advances, scientific breakthroughs and above all the political and societal changes of its time, marketing has become more sophisticated, more convincing, more subtle and more engaged at the minute. Indeed, advertising discourse has long incorporated, or rather co-opted, the rhetoric and imagery of activism in order to enhance its impact. From the feminist movement to ‘Black lives matter’, the African-American civil rights movement, LGBT pride and ‘Me too’, what is it that encourages companies to constantly place themselves at the heart of social movements? How do they do this? And why? And at what cost?
According to Andi Zeisler, author of “We Were Feminists Once”, the first efforts at engaged marketing date back to the late 19th century. At the time, companies relied on pre-existing feminist notions such as the “new woman” and the “emancipated woman” to market their products to young white girls burdened by Victorian ideals of femininity. However, the first proper committed marketing campaign was “Torches of Freedom”, conceived and designed by Edwards Bernays, the father of public relations and nephew of Sigmund Freud, in 1929. Bernays rode the first wave of the feminist movement in a way that broke the ban on women’s cigarettes: He organised a media parade of young, pretty “smokers” and ensured that it was interpreted by the press as a march for women’s rights. Thus, the cigarette became a torch of freedom, a symbol of emancipation. This ruse was aimed at expanding the potential market for tobacco beyond the male population. And since then, the tobacco industry has been adapting its advertising message to the various trends of the feminist movement.
Similarly, marketers have seized on the African-American civil rights movement, particularly the phrase “Black Power”, to capture the burgeoning African-American petty bourgeois market and/or to demonstrate interracial camaraderie.
Today, firms describe themselves as allies of social movements seeking social relevance. They seek to participate in conversations that are already popular because they can’t be bothered to start them. In the digital age, they create engaged content in the hope that it will go viral. One view, one kind comment and at least one share per supporter of the movement are thus almost guaranteed. In this context, NIKE’s feminist video ads come to mind. Perfectly crafted and perpetually epic, these engaging creations portray a company whose feminism is unquestioned, when, according to many humanitarian organisations, the truth is quite different. Although NIKE is a sporting spokesperson for the empowerment of its female consumers, historically it has not shown the same level of commitment to the East and South Asian women working in its factories.
In addition, the rise in outsourcing volume has made today’s company less about its product and more about its brand image. And with engaged consumption on the rise, it is becoming as liberal, as tolerant and as ‘woke’ as its customers. This explains the growing popularity of rainbow logos, rainbow products, and even rainbow stickers and emojis…most notably during Pride Month. On the other hand, some organisations, such as Linkedin and UEFA, are not wavering in their support for the LGBT community, at the risk of alienating the conservative wing of their target. Such a show of solidarity should signal the end of homophobia, shouldn’t it? The author of “Selling out: the gay and lesbian movement goes to market” Alexandra Chasin answers in the negative. She says: “The reduction of politics to style implies that consumption equals political change.
Could engaged marketing thus endanger the social movements it co-opts instead of advancing them? In fact, it is likely to discourage any substantial commitment by selling illusions of emancipation, equality, respect… in the form of advertising. In this sense, Mio detergents – whose marketing seeks to circumvent the gender roles associated with cleaning – not only eradicate difficult tasks, they also offer a solution to sexism and misogyny. Why should young girls protest for their rights when they can just buy an Always sanitary towel to fight the patriarchy? The idea is explicitly revealed throughout the infamous Pepsi commercial where Kendall Jenner, eases tensions between police and “Black Lives Matter” protesters with a can of soda.
Following the murder of George Floyd, a study by Bloomberg News found that 76 of the top 100 global brands had published at least one corporate statement about racial justice. Now that the American public no longer endorses the Black Lives Matter movement as it once did, we have heard very little from corporations in response to the Jacob Blake case. Don’t companies opt for engaged marketing only when it is low-key, low-risk financially and politically expedient?
Companies have used the imagery, rhetoric and message of social movements for marketing purposes. Indeed, engaged marketing has been in vogue since “the making of it” in the late 19th century because of its effectiveness. The practice of all engaged advertising has undeniable perils. And the fact that it is carried out by profit-making actors fuels public skepticism about it. However, no one can deny its importance to the socio-cultural context from which it draws its inspiration and in which it aspires, sometimes, to create change. So what do you think? Is engaged marketing really a vehicle for social justice that accompanies changing attitudes or just a shameless commercial ploy?