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‘Gaslighting’: Big brands and the rise of slacktivism

‘Gaslighting’: Big brands’ slacktivism in light of George Floyd’s death. Source: Getty

In 2017,  Munroe Bergdorf, a black, queer, trans woman, model and activist, was made the face of beauty brand L’Oreal’s cult makeup product, True Match.

Days later, she was unceremoniously sacked after speaking out when an anti-racist protester was killed by a white supremacist during a peaceful protest in the United Sates.

In a statement at the time, L’Oreal said it “supports diversity and tolerance towards all people irrespective of their race, background, gender and religion”.

But the beauty giant also said they believed Bergdorf’s comments were “at odds with those values and as such we have taken the decision to end the partnership with her”.

Interestingly, the brand’s key ambassador, Cheryl Cole – who was found guilty of assault after beating up a black nightclub toilet attendant (but was cleared of racially aggravated assault) – was not sacked for her actions.

Now, three years later, Bergdorf is calling out L’Oreal once again, after the brand declared “Speaking out is worth it” on Instagram to show support for the black community and “against injustice of any kind”.

L’Oreal then posted a plain black square, with the hashtag #blackouttuesday as the caption, part of a social media movement initiated by the music and entertainment industry in an effort to take a day to pause and reflect on the way the industry continues to disenfranchise black employees.

Angered, Bergdorf re-posted the story, saying it was “gaslighting”.

“You dropped me from a campaign in 2017 and threw me to the wolves for speaking out about racism and white supremacy,” Bergdorf said.

“I had to fend for myself being torn apart by the world's press because YOU didn't want to talk about racism.

“You do NOT get to do this. This is NOT okay, not even in the slightest. I said just yesterday that it would only be a matter of time before RACIST AF brands saw a window of PR opportunity to jump on the bandwagon.”

But L’Oreal isn’t the only brand under fire during this time. In fact, the entire fashion industry is receiving backlash.

Australian-Sudanese model Duckie Thot openly criticised the entire fashion industry on Monday, saying it “needs to do more”. 

“Y’all literally use me to promote your products. Your silence ain’t it. I want to see the support.”

Days later, Thot took to Instagram to call out Black-American Louis Vuitton fashion designer and Off-White CEO Virgil Abloh, who donated just $50 to Miami-based organisation Fempower for protesters’ legal fees.

Abloh later apologised, saying his $50 contribution was not the only donation he made.

Slacktivism, and why it’s caught on

This all-talk-no-action approach has a name, and it’s common: slacktivism. 

Slacktivism, a combination of the words ‘slacker’ and ‘activism’, is when social action is taken online in ways that involve little-to-no personal effort, and have little-to-no immediate effect.

An example now is the #blackouttuesday movement, which saw people post pictures of black squares on their social media pages.

And it’s not hard to see why slacktivism has caught on: it’s easier than affecting real change.

Research shows that people are more willing to engage in activism that is easy and less costly – emotionally, physically or financially. 

For example, more than 28 million people had posted a black square on their Instagram as of 3 June, but signatures on the George Floyd petition reached just 13 million.

Australian fashion label Sabo Skirt told Instagram followers in a since-edited post that in the past they had tried to use a more diverse range of influencers and models to promote their products, but social media engagement wasn’t as high on posts featuring women from the Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) community.

The brand later said it would extend its influencer and ambassador program to include more BIPOC, and have asked followers to support them.

Slacktivism: Not so bad?

According to professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, Jennifer Earl, small steps like posting a black square aren’t necessarily bad.

“Once people are primed to act, it’s important not to discourage them from taking that step, however small,” she wrote in a piece for The Conversation.

Findings from her research suggested that people just beginning to explore activism could be disheartened by being criticised for doing something wrong.

“Part of the reason people volunteer is to feel good about themselves and effective about changing the world,” she said.

“Shaming them for making ‘small change’ is a way to reduce numbers of protesters, not to increase them. Shaming can also create a legacy of political inactivity: Turning kids off from involvement now could encourage decades of disengagement.”

Brands leading the pack

There are many brands that have shown what it really means to be an ally by combining talk with action. 

Nike was one of the first major brands to speak out when it posted a 60-sec video on Friday 29 May to its social accounts with only white text on a black background that read: “For once, don’t do it. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America.

“Don’t turn your back on racism. Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us. Don’t make any more excuses. Don’t sit back and be silent. Don’t think you can’t be part of the change. Let’s all be part of the change.” 

In its tweet, Nike added the hashtag #UntilWeAllWin. 

Rather than release its own statement, Adidas simply retweeted Nike’s post six hours after it went live, and added: “Together is how we move forward. Together is how we make change.”

Puma released a statement and revealed it would support the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a charity organisation that works to pay the bail bonds of Black low-income earners, and seeks to end discriminatory, coercive and oppressive jailing.

Fila then announced a $100,000 donation to Black Lives Matter. 

Media brands like Netflix and Disney also spoke out, showing their commitment to Black members, employees, creators and talent.

Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s also called on Americans to “dismantle white supremacy” and “grapple with the sins of our past”.

"What happened to George Floyd was not the result of a bad apple; it was the predictable consequence of a racist and prejudiced system and culture that has treated Black bodies as the enemy from the beginning," the brand, which publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016, said in a statement.

How do we move forward?

According to Earl, the goal of activism is social change, not just activism for activism’s sake. 

But for activism to really create social change, you need numbers, Earl said. 

“‘Flash activism’, the label I prefer for online protest forms such as online petition, can be effective at influencing targets in specific circumstances,” she said.

“Think of a flash flood, where the debilitating rush of involvement overwhelms a system. Numbers matter.”

If people continue to denigrate flash activism on the part of individuals, they will eventually drive away potential allies.

But the same doesn’t necessarily go for big brands.

University of New South Wales’ School of Marketing associate professor, Nitika Garg, told Yahoo Finance that brands have generally shied away from engaging in activism around controversial issues. 

For example, when NFL player Colin Kaepernick took the knee during the US national anthem, many brands were reluctant to get behind Kapernicks’s stance, because they didn’t want to be seen to be on the wrong side, and weren’t sure what the consequences would be for their consumer base, Garg said.

Nike, however, made him the face of their brand. 

“Customers want brands to take a stand, especially if there is a great resonance in the society,” Garg said.

“So right now, if a brand doesn’t speak up about Black Lives Matter, that’s going to backfire.”

But the buck doesn’t stop with lip service.

“The speaking out part is one thing, but brands have a responsibility to take it further and back it up with action, which is where they sometimes fall apart,” Garg said.

“If you are going to align yourself with a particular issue, you better follow it up with some action.”

Deadra Rahaman, founder and president of Society Redefined, told The Drum that if a brand’s solidarity isn’t genuine, people will know.

"Consumers are savvy enough to peel back the optics. ‘How are you investing and impacting my community?’ We need brands to show up, not just give us words," Rahaman said.

Actions speak louder than words, after all.

Yahoo Finance Breakfast Club Episode 6. Source: Supplied

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