In a world where marketing and a display of morality continue to intertwine, what are the ways marginalized demographics are preyed upon for the sake of social justice?

Marketing and Social Justice: Who Wanted This?

It is arguably fair to say that people are expecting more from brands than just a service or product these days. In fact, according to an article by CMS wire, African Americans are 58% more likely to expect brands they buy from to take a stance on issues, which in turn makes people 37% more likely to buy from those brands. In 2019, an article was even done diving into the concept of ”Woke Marketing,” (‘a call to action to business leaders to create and use purpose driven marketing to do good by creating messages that communicate authenticity and demonstrate empathy and cut through the clutter of messages for underserved communities”). There is an evident desire by the people for brands to show their support, to show their care. But, the recent ways that companies have gone about “catering” to the desire for representation and ethical advertising has either missed its mark, or reads as an exploitation of the marginalized.

Black Solidarity and Propoganda 

Black History Month’s recent passing and the displays of solidarity that came are a prime example of this. Bath and Body Works faced criticism for its Black History Month collection, which featured tribal patterns and had products with words on them like, “Unity”, “Empowered,” and “Confident.” The brand also donated $500,000 to support racial justice efforts in Ohio. Now, the donation in and of itself would have sufficed, but because of how performative the product display is, it outweighed and overthrew any efforts by the business. Presenting a rollout of previous products and slapping a new, afro centric pattern on it does not read as an authentic attempt to stand with a cause, it reads as ignorant pandering to an underserved community. According to Brand Marketing Manager Desiree Myers, this issue of diversity has not necessarily progressed, even in the wake of calls for more social awareness, though they are getting there. In her time working for Adidas, she stated the brand was able to recognize the Black buying power (ex.their collaboration with Run DMC). However, with other brands, you can run into the issue of selective diversity. 

“They (brands) have this ideal of what they want their consumer to look like, or who they want at the front of their brand. I think it’s not a lot of flexibility. So definitely not, I think  that brands, some brands, up and coming brands, they’re becoming a little more intentional, but I think it’s also (personally), just to feed the culture what they want,” Myers said.

The issue of creating for the sake of “feeding the culture” was highlighted in an article by WARC titled ”Advertisers still aren’t talking to Black audiences,” which reflects on how Black dollars are not necessarily being put behind these displays of unity. 

”There are some companies that have done better across the board than others,” Cheryl Grace, a senior vice president of Nielsen Holdings (a data and market measurement firm) said. “But there are other companies that we’re seeing a lot of social-media buzz from, but we’re not seeing their dollars reflected on that advocacy.”

Black Exploitation In The Name of Solidarity

The George Floyd protests of June 2020 were a prime example of this social media buzz and how it can be a cascading failure in its own right. As Myers points out, businesses will have more athletes of color in their advertising campaigns and more shelving space has been given to brands of color, but it ultimately is done more so as a trend. She also thinks that in a way, the movement marketed itself. 

”Even brands, particular brands, were able to incorporate that (Black Lives Matter) into their marketing tactic for whatever key item or key product they’re trying to move. So, I think that’s the biggest, significant figure they saw. And then it always circles back to us as a culture because they know we hold the mass, buying power within the communities,” she said.

The spotlight offered to the Black Lives Matter movement did ultimately offer a boost to Black Owned businesses, which in turn led to increased sales. 

”You’re helping Black businesses become self-sustaining, and that helps the whole ecosystem,” Randy Williams, founder of Talley & Twine, a Black-owned watch company in Portsmouth, Virginia said.

There is also the issue of this pandering leaning into exploitation of Black communities. In an article by the New York Times, it was detailed how a group of Black artists were messaged to make art to go on a boarded up Microsoft building in the midst of the George Floyd protests, specifying its best that the art be done while the protests were still taking place, preferably by Sunday. Something that they found to be predatory.

In their rush to portray a public solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement,” the group said in an open letter to McCann and software company Microsoft. “Companies risk re-inscribing what got us all here: the instrumentalization and exploitation of Black labor, ideas and talent for what is ultimately their own benefit and safety,” they said. 

A focus on the Black community in marketing in an attempt to put on the display of solidarity is something that businesses crave. But their ethics of marketing to the Black community are poorly executed at best (Bath and Bodyworks), and hypocritically exploitative at worst (Microsoft).

Ethical Inclusivity

So, is it even possible for marketing to the Black community to be done in a way that does not come off as performative? What can be done for the brand to be authentic in its shows of solidarity? According to Myers, the best option is to interact with Black communities more intentionally. One example of this that she noted was in her time working at Adidas, where she worked with a program of film marketing specialists, where she worked with a diverse team of Black, Brown and Asian people implementing brand activations which are “a campaign, event, or interaction through which your brand generates awareness and builds lasting connections with your target audience.”

“Brands,” she said. “They just have to really be intentional of what their involvement is- or getting consumers involved. And then again, we go back to the boardroom or office, bringing more people in a representation into the office and in the boardroom,” she said.

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