Commodifying The Cause:
A Series On How Corporations Turn Your Discontent Into Dollar Signs
Consensus is hard to come by on the internet, a place so often driven by disagreements over all things big and small. But for a rare and fleeting moment back in 2017, everyone seemed to agree on one thing: Pepsi’s commercial with Kendall Jenner was bad. The now-infamous ad featured the supermodel abandoning a photoshoot in favor of a protest— one resembling a Black Lives Matter rally against police brutality, yet rendered milquetoast and meaningless with signs containing nonspecific pleas to “love” and “join the conversation”. The commercial ends with our protagonist resolving whatever was being protested by handing a can of Pepsi to a cop as the crowd cheers. Soon after its release, the soda giant released a statement before ultimately pulling the ad, saying “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize.” However, Pepsi did achieve unity, just not in the way they’d hoped, as the reception to that ad was one of universal ridicule. If the Pepsi ad offered a clear example of what happens when a corporation fails to co-opt a cause, what does it look like when corporations succeed? Not all attempts at co-optation are so ham-fisted. In fact, they’re increasingly sophisticated, permeating a growing number of causes. Yet such marketing schemes are often detrimental to solving the very problems the causes seek to address—especially when the problems are exacerbated by the very same companies in the first place. While Pepsi’s failure is widely viewed as a cautionary tale for corporations and marketing firms alike, successful attempts have much more dire implications for the rest of us. More often than not, corporate co-optation quickly turns to exploitation, as matters of life and death get reduced to nothing more than marketing ploys to launder the image of major companies. Opposing this is just as, if not more, deserving of consensus than Pepsi’s ad since this practice of corporate image laundering hurts more causes than many people realize. In this series, we will look at some of the areas where this is most common, including LGBTQ equality via Rainbow-washing, racial equality via woke-washing, climate change via green-washing, and even breast cancer research via pink-washing.
Part 1: Rainbow-washing
For those with only a surface knowledge of Pride, it can be easy to misinterpret the event as simply a celebration. Doing so, however, entails overlooking exactly what is being celebrated: LGBTQ history, perseverance, and progress. The Pride Parade was born out of that fight for progress, beginning as a way to commemorate the 1-year anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, in which members of the LGBTQ community such as Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson quite literally fought back against violently oppressive police raids. Despite the progress made in over 50 years since, the fight against state-sanctioned homophobia and transphobia has never truly ended. This is why brands attaching themselves to Pride inspire so many mixed feelings: corporations are all too eager to join the party, yet are too often nowhere to be found during the struggle for parity. Making matters worse, many companies that treat the LGBTQ community as part of their target market also fund politicians who target said community in much more nefarious ways—namely with anti-LGBTQ policies that impede the very progress Pride celebrates. FedEx, Pfizer, and Home Depot, for example, despite being sponsors of Pride Parade floats, have donated millions to anti-LGBTQ politicians. This year alone, these politicians and their like-minded allies have introduced or supported over 100 bills in 33 different states targeting transgender people’s rights. As a result, 2021 has already been a record-breaking year for anti-trans legislation in America, which is why corporations simultaneously attempting to tap into the $3.7 trillion buying power of the LGBTQ community while supporting the politicians persecuting them is beyond hypocritical, it’s insidious. While it’s worth noting that not all major companies that market to the LGBTQ community engage in such practices, it’s also worth noting that they can nonetheless do damage, albeit in less obvious ways. The desire to raise awareness is the most common pretense used to justify corporate involvement in various causes, including that of LGBTQ equality, but that message often finds itself diluted by the stronger corporate desire to be as inoffensive as possible to anyone who may disagree with said message (in other words, the very people most in need of awareness), for fear of losing their business. This leads to “awareness” campaigns with vague and generic slogans (ie: Redbull’s billboards with rainbow cans that merely read: “Wings For Everyone”) that seldom reflect the reality of LGBTQ issues, for example that LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than other youth and 40% have considered suicide worldwide. And while it may not be a corporation’s responsibility to address these issues, it shouldn’t be too much to ask that corporations pretending to care actually do so, especially when considering that almost half of brands with pride campaigns donate nothing from their profits. And while these companies continue to profit, many charities putting in the actual work of helping the community continue to struggle.