Opinion: Corporate activism is the worst kind of activism

Illustration Amazon
Illustrated by Emma Tildeman

I recently stumbled upon something pretty enraging in the New York Times. It was a “paid post,” which is essentially an advertisement in article form. It was placed by Amazon, titled “The Power of Brands to Drive Social Change.” No author is listed.

The post begins with a couple of vague sentences praising brands as heroes of social justice and moral goodness. Then it gives an example: a program called Rising Voices that is sponsored by Hillman Grad Productions and Indeed, a job search company, and promoted by Amazon. This program’s core message is “Talent is universal. Opportunity is not” (I agree!). Their answer to this: “‘What if, instead of spending $1 million on a big TV ad, we invested $1 million for 10 BIPOC creators to produce short films about the meaning of work?’” Funding artists is a good thing. But brands like Hillman Grad, Indeed and Amazon are not taking this action because they want to level the racial and economic playing field by spending their money on programs instead of ads — these types of programs are themselves ads. We don’t have to scour through Amazon’s message to see this.

Amazon actually makes it easy to prove this point. Try as they might, Amazon seems unable to contain its corporate glee at the lucrative profits of virtue-signaling, and the article is sprinkled with statistics about how consumers are willing to pay for diversity and representation in advertising. There’s a nice summarizing quote in the paid post from the director of the Brandcenter, a graduate program at Virginia Commonwealth University. They write, “In today’s competitive business climate, brands that choose not to include diverse voices may lose credibility among consumers.” This quote reveals Amazon’s motivations. They are not concerned with creating a more diverse and equitable world, but with keeping up customer credibility and profits. Here, as in all cases, Amazon is following the money.

The issue is not only that Amazon, Hillman Grad and Indeed are capitalizing on public concern about systemic racism to improve their business models. The broader issue is that by focusing on things like funding 10 random BIPOC artists — who are already well funded, as a quick Google search for each filmmaker’s net worth reveals most of them are millionaires — and meeting self-imposed diversity quotas, these brands distract consumers from some of the root causes of systemic racism and economic inequality of all kinds.

Stronger labor laws, investment in public education and affordable housing and a more expansive social safety net would all do infinitely more to level the racial and economic playing field in our country than any number of corporate-funded films will. Amazon won’t ever come around to promoting these, though, because they all in some way threaten the profits of huge corporations. What good is Amazon’s paid post about their miraculous strides in forwarding social justice when the company has violated employee rights at a (majority-Black) union drive in Bessemer, AL, and rejected their first shareholder proposal for a racial audit last season? How helpful is promoting programs like Rising Voices when Amazon has fought against affordable education, affordable childcare and tax credits for low wage workers by lobbying against the Build Back Better Bill?

In May 2020, during the George Floyd protests, Nike released their “Don’t Do It” video. Their message: “For once, Don’t Do It. Don’t turn your back on racism. Don’t make any more excuses. Don’t sit back and be silent.”

It’s ridiculous to be lectured about equality by a company that at times refused to allow the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) to investigate their factories. In Hansae, Vietnam, when the WRC was finally able to conduct an independent investigation, they found that Nike’s workers were physically and verbally abused, illegally high temperatures caused many to collapse and managers imposed excessive and involuntary overtime while also taking control of any attempts at worker organization.

It’s all too easy for corporations to hijack the language used in liberal circles on the internet to pose as warriors in the fight for equality while they pick the pockets of their workers — often the very people they claim to be fighting for. Being skeptical of big corporations is important for anyone invested in social justice. While funding artists and speaking out against police brutality are both positive actions, it’s too easy for corporations to use these tactics to paint over their own wrongdoings and shift our conversations about social justice from widespread economics to diversity in very narrow contexts. Corporate social activism is a competition about who can use the prettiest words to denounce injustice in the vaguest terms.

At Occidental, we are privileged because we are learning about social issues and their root causes. Social justice and equity are widespread concerns among our student body, and it’s important to use our education to think critically. We should not see something like Amazon’s paid post and simply nod our heads, accepting that this is the state of discussion about equality. We need to understand that companies will always be motivated solely by profit, and that this will usually come in conflict with workers’ rights and racial and economic equality. We have the opportunity to take back the national conversation about social justice and use it to support reforms that affect millions of Americans, like unionization efforts at Amazon and other companies, and any legislation aimed at creating opportunities for those who don’t already have them. Why not start there?