December 15, 2020

The Rise of Consumer Activism

Commodity activism has seen a re-emergence, thanks to young people today who are reportedly more involved in social causes through consumerism.

The Rise of Consumer Activism

At the height of racial and social unrest in the U.S. and around the world, some took to the streets to fight for racial equality, while others, notably digital activists and influencers, came together to promote Black-owned businesses as a way to subvert power through consumption. This trend continued into the holiday season: retailers and activists are now encouraging consumers to purchase gifts with a social justice message, notably an anti-racist message.


Digital Activism More Rampant Among Young Americans

While commodity activism isn’t new, it seems to be more popular than ever, especially among younger people. Cause & Social Influence, a research group focused on young Americans and their involvement in social movements recently released a report on how young Americans (ages 18–30) helped others in 2020. The report found that the top 3 actions young Americans took were:

  • Changing the way they shop
  • Posting/sharing content on social media
  • Signing petitions

These actions have been trending upward even prior to the pandemic, proving that these habits are not temporary.

By November, half of the respondents said they were getting their information on issues of racial inequality and social justice from online content creators and influencers.

We can glean a lot from these results: it’s clear that online influencers have a significant impact on young Americans and their shopping habits. And as opposed to generations preceding them, young Americans today largely seek to create change within the parameters of the capitalist status quo, as opposed to taking action outside of it. This raises a number of questions on whether systemic change is even possible when one is fighting it within the constraints of an inherently unequal system.

The re-emergence of commodity activism reflects a turning point in the way we consume — and from where.

The Origins of Mass Consumption

Consumerism has a long history.

The end of WWII marked the beginning of America’s consumer society: jobs were abundant, wages were good, upward mobility was not uncommon — and Americans were eager to spend. And spend they did. The American consumer was considered a patriot, a sentiment that continues today in Western countries. Suburban life took off and many Americans were, by all accounts, living the good life.

Entire industries propped up, transforming the way we consume, no longer out of pragmatism, but out of desire. Edward Bernays — the Father of Public Relations — played an influential role in manipulating public opinion to boost profits. He was inspired by his uncle Sigmund Freud, who maintained that irrational forces drive human behaviour. By subconsciously manipulating behaviour, he would make people buy things they did not need. Public relations and advertisement skyrocketed in popularity.

Of course, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The counterculture of the 1960s emerged as a way to resist mass consumption and capitalism. But then, counterculture itself became mainstream. Capitalism entered a new phase in which individual identities were shaped by production, which meant that peoples’ identities were, in turn, shaped by what they consumed. Then in the late 1990s/early 2000s, the rise of anti-consumer rhetoric once again took hold, reflecting a constant tug of war between consumption and anti-consumption in modern society. It seems the anti-consumerist movement made some headway, and then petered out, just as quickly as it emerged.

The Rise of Hyper-Commodity Activism

Fast forward to today.

Instead of avoiding consumption, many companies and activists alike are promoting consumption as a form of resistance. Companies have long tried to profit off of social justice. This isn’t new. Indeed, even at the height of the anti-consumer movement, companies like Nike were embedding feel-good campaigns into their products as a way to entice the socially conscious consumer. Nike has a long history of political proselytization and has created an entire culture around social justice branding (or ‘brand culture’ as it is often called).

In 1987, Nike released a major campaign with the help of Wieden+Kennedy, a Portland-based creative agency. In the advertisement, The Beatles’ 1968 hit song Revolution played in the background, while images of professional athletes and ordinary people of all races, sexes, and ages displayed on the screen, conveying the message that there was a revolution in the way people exercised. Nike profits soared. Soon after, Nike would be embedding social justice issues into many of their future campaigns, fusing anti-establishment ideas into their product messaging. Despite its continued criticism (and the criticism is abundant), Nike has seen great success profiting off of this marketing strategy.

Supporting Local is a Red Herring

As we have seen, it’s even more popular to promote consumption as an act of resistance — and the pandemic has set the stage for this trend to take off under the banner of ‘supporting local.’

Supporting local BIPOC-owned businesses is seen as the more ethical alternative to the faceless, exploitative company. And while this is certainly true, I’m still reminded of the consumer=patriot rhetoric that is often pushed in times of social decay and unrest. The messaging is that if people are going to consume anyway, then why not support local BIPOC businesses? I see the logic, though I also see this rhetoric as a red herring that absolves the consumer of the duty to meaningfully challenge the status quo in other ways.

To be clear, I’m not critical of small businesses, but I am critical of businesses and influencers that use emotional tactics — no matter what the cause — to manipulate people into purchasing things they don’t need — and especially influencers who stand to gain more social capital for commodifying activism.

Buying an Experience

Perhaps there was a time, in certain circumstances when commodity activism would have been an effective tool to incite change. But today, I largely see it as a way to make political statements within the parameters of neoliberal dogma.

In many ways, it’s as if we are making negotiations with ourselves, that we can still do something within the capitalist constraints. Commodity activism, especially for young people, is about buying an identity or an experience. And ironically, it too depends on Bernays’s own propaganda techniques, but this time, it’s under the guise of doing good.

Featured image: Image made using Canva


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