Corporate Hijacking & Co-Optation and of Social Movements
The world has experienced a sharp rise in social movements in the past few decades. We have seen numerous instances of mass-mobilisation and dissenting voices resulting in the emergence of prominent movements such as Black Lives Matter, against systemic racism and police brutality, Time's Up and Me Too against sexual harassment and violence, and the Shaheen Bagh sit-in against the discriminatory CAA-NRC laws. These revolutionary movements have received worldwide support.
The Black Lives Matter movement emerged back in 2013, and started gaining momentum in 2016. The movement was reignited with the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. As the protests started gaining momentum and spread from America to other parts of the world, raising concerns about institutionalised racism in society, big names started coming out in support of the struggle. Nike, Adidas, Netflix and P&G, among other industry giants publicly came out to pledge support to the movement. Some ran social-media campaign ads while others provided monetary support to the cause. However, questions arise with regards to the intentions and genuineness behind this support.
Nike, a US-based brand, has been at the forefront of lending support to the BLM movement. In 2018, the athletic-wear giant made NFL-star Colin Kaepernick the face of their ad-campaign after his controversial decision to kneel for the US national anthem in protest against police brutality in the country. Kaepernick also featured in their ad, titled "Dream Crazy", alongside other inspiring athletes. In May this year, Nike released a powerful ad, urging people to not look away and acknowledge and stand up against racism in the country.
On the surface, it seems like Nike is a brand committed to social justice and equality. But there are worrying allegations of racial discrimination and lack of representation against the company. After Nike released its anti-racism ad in May, it faced backlash for not having a single black person in a senior leadership position. Soon after, an Instagram page called "Black at Nike" was formed. The purpose of the page was "amplifying Black voices from current and former Nike employees." The page posted anonymous accounts of people of colour who allegedly faced racial discrimination while working for the company. Their sportswear brand has also been accused of promoting racial stereotyping. With a history like this, their pro-black stand seems hypocritical.
A pattern can be observed here with a lot of companies' actions contradicting with their public stands on issues. Recently, a post featuring an elderly couple who runs a roadside food stall in Delhi struggling to make ends meet went viral on the internet. Food delivery giant Zomato immediately jumped on the bandwagon and made arrangements to get them on board with the app. What seemed like a genuine gesture of goodwill doesn't seem so genuine when we direct our attention to Zomato's history of underpaying their employees and coercing small business owners into selling their food-items for less than cost price. The owner of Coachella, a popular US entertainment festival that almost always features an LGBTQ-inclusive line-up, has donated regularly to anti-LGBTQ and homophobic organisations. Fast fashion brands such as H&M and Forever 21 release "rainbow" merchandise during Pride month, but contribute in no substantial way to LGBTQ emancipation. And therefore, a question arises: Why do brands publicly support causes they don't principally commit to?
The fact is that these companies have an incentive in partaking in this kind of brand activism. In fact, research shows that 64% of consumers prefer brands that engage in social activism. The case with Nike was no different, and they saw a 31% increase in their sales after the Kaepernick ad. It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that in case any of these brands felt like taking a particular stand on a social issue was proving to be harmful to their profits, they would immediately withdraw support, just as recently observed in the case of the Tanishq ad. The Indian jewellery brand released an ad depicting an interfaith marriage, which received a lot of backlash from the Indian right-wing, following which the company's stock prices dropped, and they decided to withdraw the ad.
This sparks discourse on how ethical this co-option and social profiteering actually is. Should brands be allowed to exploit social causes for personal gains, and should this trend be promoted?
This trend has received criticism frompeople from within the LGBTQ community, who find the culture of Pinkwashing and Queerbaiting quite offensive and believe that brands should provide practical and substantial help to the community all year round, instead of exploiting the movement with tokenistic gestures during Pride month. The black community has accused the privileged elites of always viewing them through the lens of value and profit, first by enslaving them for centuries, and now using their identity to earn race-based capital. The radical left believes that these giant corporations, along with other capitalistic structures, are responsible for the exploitation and oppression of the masses, and later for the appropriation of and commodification of their struggles, through co-option of their movements.
This phenomenon has real-life implications, both positive and negative. On one hand, this kind of brand activism results in the concerned movement gaining exposure and outreach, and might encourage sections of the population who are unaware or uninformed about a particular issue, to educate themselves, thereby benefiting the movement and bringing about promising social change. Proponents of this culture also argue that in case of social movements bringing about changes that are in contrast to the status quo of societal norms and acceptability, brands and companies publicly supporting the causes may help in normalisation and standardisation of that particular concept or practice.
But the practice has valid criticism attached to it as well. Corporate giants are notoriously famous for extending tokenistic support to these social movements on social media or via advertisements for ''brownie wokeness point", while they take no substantial action to bring about positive change. Sometimes, this kind of activism may also be perceived as appropriation of a struggle. In some cases, the concerned brands may even be seen engaging in behaviour that stands in direct conflict with their supposed stand on the issue. Consumers often take this brand activism at face-value, and it isn't feasible for them to research every brand to make sure their claims are backed by substance, so this kind of activism may be considered as deceiving and misleading to the general public. Not to mention, it is extremely unjust to co-opt a movement merely for profits while giving nothing back to the community. This practice makes it acceptable for these companies to lend bare-minimum support to social justice struggles also absolves them of their obligation to contribute to society.
At this point, it is imperative to note that social movements are hijacked not only by corporations, but in some cases, also by people who partake in these movements as allies. The recent Hathras rape and murder case sparked nationwide protests against systematic discrimination and violence against Dalits. In one such protest, Swara Bhaskar, who is an upper-caste Bollywood actress, was seen sharing the stage with Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad. The scene sparked outrage, with members of the Dalit community accusing Swara of taking up space meant for Dalits and hijacking the movement. She was called a parasite and accused of jumping on stage uninvited for visibility. This incident isn't the first of allies taking up space meant for marginalised communities. Although allies must use their privilege to highlight and amplify these movements, does this give them the right to hog spaces that should be reserved for the oppressed? This behaviour indicates the presence of some sort of internalised superiority and saviour complex, that must be recognised and condemned at all costs.
So, how do we tread the fine line between support/allyship of a movement and its co-option? We need to hold corporations and brands accountable and ensure that their vocal support is backed by tangible contributions, and that their core ideologies align with their public statements. We must, collectively ensure that brands that exploit social movements for social profiteering are being called out and facing substantial consequences for their pseudo-activism, be it in the form of boycotts or pressure by the public. As allies, we must learn to step aside, pass the mic to communities that face injustice and focus on amplifying their voices, instead of trying to take up the role of their saviours. Supporters of a moment must stand back, and let the oppressed and the disenfranchised be the leaders of their own struggles.
By Amirah Sajad
Amirah is a second-year student of Political Science. She is a proud Kashmiri, and a cat lover. She is passionate about human rights and social justice issues. In her spare time, she loves staring at mountains and planning her life living alone in a wooden cabin, on one of them.