When — if ever — is it ok for retailers to profit from contentious social movements?

Gone are the days of grassroots, word-of-mouth activism: the advent of social media networks has dramatically changed the way that social movements gain traction in today’s society. Thanks to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, activists can now attract and engage with groups of people who may traditionally have been unable to support social causes for a variety of reasons — remote geographic location, prohibitive work schedules, or limited access to news and information among them.

An excellent model of the way in which this new, digitally-fueled activism gains momentum can be found in the Women’s March. What began the day after the 2016 presidential election as a Facebook post from a grandmother in Hawaii exploded into a massive global movement that united 2 million people of all ages, races, and religion. Such a snowball effect would have been inconceivable just 10 or 15 years ago; the infamous 1969 Peace Moratorium demonstrations against the Vietnam War, for example, took six months to organize.

But as social activism becomes encouragingly more commonplace, brands have struggled to successfully navigate this delicate terrain. When it comes to such contentious issues as gender equality, LGBTQ rights, racially motivated violence, and the slew of other hot-button issues currently dominating the zeitgeist, when is it ok for brands to participate in this dialogue?

All In Favor

The obvious conundrum is, of course, that without the assistance of mainstream brands and retailers, many consumers may never be exposed to activist messaging at all. While nearly everyone has access to the internet, we are increasingly confined to ideological echo chambers. For example, Facebook’s controversial algorithms feed users news stories that mirror their existing opinions, leaving little room for the exploration of movements that might not necessarily align with a reader’s existing worldview.

That’s where brands come in. Take, for example, Always’ viral “Like A Girl Campaign.” Despite the campaign’s fairly transparent reliance on emotional manipulation, its overall message is timely, powerful, and appropriately related to the brand’s products (although you’ll notice the products themselves are never explicitly mentioned in the campaign). The ad succinctly summarizes a pervasive and damaging cultural attitude: that women are less capable than men. For someone who may not typically engage in conversations about gender equality, this ad functions as a helpful entrée into a complex — and often fraught — topic. Overall, the campaign serves as a remarkably successful case study to which other brands should aspire.

All Against

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take — but you’ll also probably miss some of the shots you do take.

Just ask Pepsi. The beverage company found itself in hot — scratch that, boiling — water earlier this year when it released an unsuccessful video spot suggesting that Pepsi may be the secret to world peace and racial unity. In the ad, protesters are instantly placated when model Kendall Jenner hands a police officer a Pepsi. Yes, really.

Considering that the ad was released in 2017 — a year during which 279 black people were killed by police officers and protests against police brutality were commonplace — the concept and execution were both unbelievably tone-deaf.

We can only speculate as to why Pepsi thought the ad would be a good idea. Perhaps the brand truly believed it was promoting a message of peace. But between casting a white supermodel and equipping extras with bizarre, nondescript protest signs bearing messages like “Join the Conversation” and “Love,” the campaign came across as transparently opportunistic — and consumers took note.

Always: 1; Pepsi: 0

The Verdict: Practice What You Preach

So how can brands determine when it’s appropriate to wade into contentious waters?

It comes down to a simple question: do the benefits of the commercial’s larger messaging outweigh — or at least justify — the obvious opportunism? Is the brand doing anything to actually support these causes? Does the campaign dilute or distort the message that activists are trying to convey?

In the case of Always’ #LikeAGirl ads, the brand made good on their campaign with meaningful efforts to empower and educate women. They launched their own female-centric take on the emoji keyboard; partnered with over 30 organizations to educate young women in developing countries about health and sanitation; and doubled down on their efforts to empower young girls going through puberty in the US. In fact, this mission to empower and educate women has long been a part of Always’ ethos — the #LikeAGirl campaign merely served as a powerful and timely reminder of these efforts.

Pepsi, on the other hand, has made no efforts to raise awareness of or reduce police brutality, and has remained notably silent on every other controversial issue that’s arisen during the first year of President Trump’s administration. While Pepsi does support a few philanthropic causes, they’re unrelated to the social issue they attempted to co-opt in pursuit of profit.

That’s not to say that brands aren’t entitled to their silence — especially when, like Pepsi, they serve such a vast and diverse group of customers with differing social and political views. But if a brand is hoping to get away with blatant cause marketing, they should be prepared to actively support the cause — not simply profit from it.

Longneck and Thunderfoot offers brand publishing services and strategies to transform your company blog into a sophisticated trade publication that drives visibility and influence in your market. Learn more about brand publishing here.

Author Grace Stearns

A graduate of Pepperdine University, Grace has worked in PR and brand communications at publishing giants like Condé Nast, Hearst Magazines Digital Media, and Simon & Schuster. She writes about content marketing, social media, and technology for L&T's blog. A reluctant West Coast transplant, Grace lives in Brooklyn and spends a majority of her free time curled up with a good book.

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