While it has become commonplace for brands to post hashtags and viral images in support of political movements on social media, audiences are becoming increasingly skeptical of this type of online signaling, referring to it as a type of faux activism known as slacktivism. Many have come to view these practices as shallow and believe they demonstrate a preference for slogans and platitudes over meaningful action.
In May, Nike released a video which swapped their iconic slogan with “Don’t Do It,” urging viewers to recognize and confront racism and injustice. A study by the advertising analytics company Ace Metrix found that while a majority of responses gave the ad a high empowerment score, it also received a relatively high exploit score as well. What this means is that even though a majority found the general message to be a positive one, many also felt it was a brazen attempt to sell shoes.
On the other hand, the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, which has a long history of supporting various causes, got a largely trusting and positive reception to its support of Black Lives Matter. Similarly, Reebok, which has a history of LGBTQ+ support, received a positive response to its “All Kinds of Love” campaign, in which it donated $75,000 to the “It Gets Better Project.”
Cases like these provide valuable insights into how brands can better engage with audiences online around emotionally charged issues.
“Slacklisting” news content
Blacklisting or blocking news content about race, politics, climate change and other important topics is a raging problem across digital media, and the worst offenders may see public backlash in the near future. Publishers like Vice Media have already started to speak up about how advertisers are actively blocking content about race, which other news outlets like Variety and the New York Post reported as well. If enough prominent voices raise awareness about this issue, consumers may start to take note and will put pressure on advertisers to change their ways.
Already, many publishers have spoken out against advertisers that have blocked news content related to the Covid-19 crisis, and now articles related to George Floyd and Black Lives Matter are experiencing the same treatment. More consumers are learning about this issue previously limited to industry insiders.
As discovered in our own analysis of brand responses to the pandemic, the practice of redesigning a logo to embrace a movement is not always well received.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, several companies released redesigned versions of their logos with stark separations, which were created to support social distancing practices promoted by health experts. Though some reacted to the logos positively, seeing them as an attempt to promote awareness towards a serious public health issue, others found them shallow or even cringeworthy.
At the beginning of June, the video game company Bethesda Softworks began swapping in a rainbow-themed version of their logo for profile pictures in honor of Pride Month. Internet sleuths were quick to discover that accounts based in Russia, Turkey and the Middle East were missing the new logo, spawning numerous memes mocking the company as inauthentic in their support of LGBTQ+ rights. In some circles online, practices like these are considered examples of “pink capitalism,” a term for performative support of the LGBTQ+ community for profit. Critics often claim pink capitalism is exploitative and ultimately damaging to the community it claims to support.
When slacktivism gets memed
Following the avalanche of tone-deaf brand responses to the many crises that have plagued 2020 thus far, a whole genre of memes mocking these messages has arisen in their wake.
One of the more widely circulated parody images of this type is a simple black background with white text, which mimics a popular format used by companies posting messages of support for Black Lives Matter on social media. The meme uses a satirical template to depict brands as opportunistically signaling support for the movement for financial gain, though failing to do anything of actual substance. Over the last several months, the image has spread across many of the major social media platforms, including Reddit, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, gathering thousands of engagements and views.
More recently, a fake Black Lives Matter post created by comedian Yassir Lester that presented itself as an absurd ad by the sandwich chain Jersey Mike’s, went viral on Twitter. Posted as if it were an official announcement released by the company, it claims Jersey Mike’s made the decision to change the name of its BLT sandwich to BLM to honor the racial justice movement. Gathering upwards of 145,000 likes on the platform, the tweet was eventually covered in a news segment by NBC New York.
Examples like these are appearing with ever-increasing frequency, and web communities do not hesitate to take brands to task if they appear to be exploiting a cause for commercial gain. These memes mocking what are perceived as slacktivist messages can often become bigger than the posts they are satirizing, seeing enormous engagement numbers and circulation across the web.
When brands commit to a cause, they have a history that can be easily tracked online. Years of supportive charity, involvement and messaging build a level of trust with a community that can’t be faked. In evolutionary biology, these are referred to as “honest signals,” which communicate a level of authenticity and commitment that are more likely to resonate with audiences.
To be taken seriously in times like these, brands need to demonstrate consistency while being open and transparent. While posting messages on social media may get a positive reaction from some viewers, others want to see some other sign of dedication before hopping on board. To put it simply: Brands need to put their money where their mouth is.