The Brand of Social Justice – Activism Sells

Do you think heaven has a marketing department?

I don’t think so, because what exactly would heaven need to do to sell itself to people? I say this as an atheist, not that that’s relevant, it’s just I’m not talking about selling proof of existence – I’m talking about making people want something. You wouldn’t need a flyer through your door about heaven with pretty colours and branding, you’d just need to be told it existed.

Hell however, now that’s a different story. No one is going to hell if they know the truth of it. You’d need an extensive department of spinners, tempters and rhetoricians to sell the hell brand to the masses. It’s an opportunity for self-improvement; a challenge for the bold with zero risk of hypothermia. Long-term tenancy guaranteed, no fees, complimentary barbecue etcetera.

I’m not accusing anyone who works in marketing of being an agent of the devil, though I can’t help the fact that sales and marketing have so long been associated with pure evil. Apart from being a country-wide job creation scheme in the private sector, marketing is best known as the practise of using creativity to persuade consumers that they want or need things they don’t want or need. In a commercially driven economy this is a necessary activity, but when money is the ultimate goal the people and places we exploit to achieve it are often questioned.

In case you haven’t guessed already, this was an overly-elaborate introduction to all this Pepsi nonsense we’ve been memeing about. Strange as it seems, social justice is in fashion, and the mad men of this world haven’t failed to notice. I’m a persistent advocate for the relationship between feminism and popular culture (fuck yeah, Beyonce), but when this relationship is turned back on itself to sell you something, my cynicism comes marching back.

Though popular culture widens the reach of social causes it can also trivialise them. Popular figures will wear the ‘feminist’ t-shirt but steer clear of deeper, controversial issues out of fear of alienation. I love a good feminist t-shirt, but it’s easy to put it on and then avoid getting into a fight with it (if you’re white, especially). Popular culture is regrettably now as commercial as it ever was political, so any relationship with it is tainted with the mark of profit. Feminism as a brand can be indulged it to a point, just not insofar that you criticise a potential buyer. If you’re using feminism as a brand for an icon, you’re using an anti-capitalist* movement to market an individual – see the irony?

The individualistic, trivialised version of social justice really came to a head in the image of Kendall Jenner sedating police brutality with a carbonated beverage. A white-washed, cruelty-free version of the good fight that conveniently avoided showing exactly what the protesters were protesting. All in the name of thirst-quenching, except not really, because those drinks are designed to make you more thirsty aren’t they? That’s business.

Heineken have now hopped on the wagon, publishing a long-form ad where people of differing politics, including a feminist and an alt-right – sorry, fascist – gentlemen, construct a bar together while ignorant of each other. After a painfully awkward reveal of each other’s beliefs, they are offered the chance to settle their differences over a beer. A Heineken, funnily enough. They take the chance of course and all come out of it ‘better people’.

The ad is brilliant, very well constructed and engaging. It may well do some good, though I cannot shake the discomfort I feel about its ultimate purpose. Advertising is sales, we are being sold an image, and social issues are a sneaky way of getting people’s attention. Everybody’s talking about politics, or celebrities are anyway, and anything that’s on trend can be capitalised.

True political activism requires passion and unfailing commitment, but big brands can abandon a cause as soon as the benefits reaped from it run dry. If we want progressive socialism in the public consciousness, we can’t relinquish control of it to advertising. There comes a point where as grateful as I am for any promotion of tolerance, I don’t believe it will last unless the intentions are pure.



*It should be, at least. God knows how but conservative feminists do exist.

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