Read: Brands are not out friends
This template that brands use to respond to a national crisis has become standard in recent years, as people experience collective trauma on the internet in real time. Images of police violence, school shootings, or racist attacks appear on the same social-media platforms where companies sell mascaras or sneakers or delivery services, often side by side. Contemporary marketing theory implores brands to show up where people naturally congregate online and engage with the topics they care about. That means riding the wave of memes and random topics that sustain social-media chatter, posting in the same formats as everyone else, often acting more like a friend than a company—even in times of tragedy.
But it has never been clearer than right now that brands aren’t your friend, when social media is awash in videos of riots and humans being assaulted, in the middle of a global pandemic, all while the president of the United States threatens to unleash the country’s military on its own populace. American brands have rushed to show where they stand, but it’s still uncertain what they intend to offer—what they can offer—beyond greater awareness of their existence and a vague sense of virtue.
Historically, companies hoping to sell you cleaning products or sweatpants didn’t feel the need to share their thoughts on racism, disaster, and national tragedy. Wading into divisive topics was considered needlessly risky—as Michael Jordan once joked about his own reticence to comment on politics, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” That apolitical approach changed as social media took off and marketing molded to fit it. Conventional advertising just isn’t that effective online, where people quickly learn to tune it out, use simple programs to block it, or sign up for paid services where they avoid ads entirely. That encourages a different kind of ad: one that social-media users want to share themselves, often because it appeals to their ideals or beliefs. The earliest proof that this tactic could be remunerative was the monstrously successful Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which started in 2004. Over the next decade and a half, the company chided those who buy into beauty standards, set up self-esteem workshops and antidiscrimination campaigns, and made billions selling body wash and deodorant.
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In the years after Dove’s success, market research began to support the concept its campaign had proved: People, and especially those under 40, want brands to be responsible to their customers and sensitive to the conditions of life in America. What that means in practice, though, is less clear. Instead of taking concrete actions, many companies interpret consumers’ push for social responsibility as a strong desire for them to make vague statements about even vaguer values, such as “equality” and “community,” when something racist dominates the news. Sometimes, these gestures include donations to well-funded and well-known nonprofit organizations, or an indeterminate promise to make such a donation, in some amount, to some kind of charity that is “doing the work.”