Selling activism – 2017’s hottest commodity


It’s no secret that marketing has always been a type of psychology, manipulating consumers into buying into the ideals around certain products along with the products themselves. When you buy a Mercedes-Benz, you’re buying a certain lifestyle, and you’re doing the same thing when you’re preparing your Sunday lunch of happy organic grass-fed hens.

Trusted tools have been used to sell a lifestyle – sex appeal, humour, and other things that people can supposedly relate to. But there’s a new hot tool of the trade that everyone wants to maximise today: appealing to customers’ social consciousness.

To be socially conscious – that is, to get “woke” – is the name of the game in 2017. Everyone is in on it. People were shook that Teen Vogue starting doing thoughtful journalism about national politics in the US, appealing to their consumers’ consciences and also capitalising on the trend to be more socially aware. Of course, we need to be more aware of the world around us, but we also need to be more critical about the way corporations are using genuine causes to increase their bottom line.

‘Diversity’ and ‘representation’ have become keywords to throw around, and “inclusivity” is an aspiration that marketers have been quick to latch onto.

When Nike launched its ProHijab campaign, with headscarves designed and marketed for athletes who cover their hair, it was lauded for including and representing Muslim women. But was this really a move inspired by social justice or was it just an instance of pure capitalism?

I’m not convinced by the product or the hype around it. As an active Muslim woman, I have been swimming and hiking whilst keeping my hair covered for years, without compromising on my faith. Nike’s hijab is not revolutionary, and we shouldn’t be giving them so much credit. Nike is merely using their supposed support for Muslim women to market their products.

This was the second strike for Nike in the past couple of months. Its previous attempt to use representation as a selling point – in an advert showcasing Arab athletes – was criticised for entrenching stereotypes instead of breaking them.

More broadly, brands like H&M have tried hard to capitalise on feminism by putting the label on t-shirts. While it’s great that people are getting excited about progressive social movements, we have to ask whether reducing feminism to a slogan on a t-shirt really helps raise awareness or whether it is instead stripping away meaning.

The fast-food chain Nandos, which is known for their tongue-in-cheek humour, was recently criticised for playing on the phrase mixed-race in an ad campaign.

Earlier in the year, at the tail-end of Donald Trump’s divisive election campaign, US branches of the fast food chain Nandos put out posters saying “Everyone is welcome, including those Trump had pledged to persecute through his policies, including homosexuals, Muslims and immigrants. The chain committed to donating 50% of all proceeds from 20 to 21 January to a meal distribution programme. The sentiment was a warm one, but did publicising the move ultimately renders it simply sneaky marketing tool to boost the brand’s image?

You’re probably thinking that there’s nothing wrong with doing good while buying things you would probably have bought anyway, and I don’t entirely disagree. But brands have the responsibility to not misuse terms, ideas, and movements without being upfront about it. Businesses are here to make a profit but it should not be at the cost of appropriating ethical positions.

“Woke” is the in-thing in 2017, and that’s what’s going to get corporates their retweets – and by extension their sales. But brands that go out of their way to be down with the revolution can do more harm to a cause than good, and we should be wary of buying what they’re selling. As Nomalanga Mkhize wrote in her criticism of the Nandos mixed-race ad, “No one expects corporates to be pushing the revolution.”

Featured image via Flickr


  1. Once again I’m completely amazed at the pointlessness of this article. Of course corporations cater for their consumers, how else would they succeed as businesses? If Teen vogue continues to have more political articles do you not think it’s because teenagers with an interest in current affairs and politics are finally being catered for? Companies are unlikely to persist with plans if they aren’t financially viable and that includes changing with the times. If a magazine changes its content to cater for its readers that’s a win-win to me- I can’t understand how you consider that as readers being manipulated. They get to choose to buy the magazine after all. Nike Hijabs – is it hurting anyone? No. Reinforcing negative stereotypes – no. What is the issue? I can run in my pumps but I prefer my nikes if I’m going to gym and I’d imagine that would be the same rationale for sport’s Hijabs. The complaint about the Nike ad was just silly so I’m not going to address it again in detail. You are young so maybe you don’t remember a time when feminism had far more negative connotations than it does now – it was a label that even I wasn’t sure about taking up (despite my firm belief in gender equality). Awareness often leads to increased interest and understanding. Wearing a shirt will not change the core principles or worth of something but starting a conversation isn’t the worst thing in the world. I’m not here to judge someone for wearing a t shirt. Of course companies have marketing tools and will try to appeal to their consumers, but what on earth is ‘appropriating ethical positions’? You are offended with companies having ethics? Would you prefer if they just didn’t allow their voices to be heard and kept to fence sitter type of marketing? For what? Taking a stand will offend some and will help some. Think of Starbucks who took a stand on Trump’s Immigration Ban and had a significant social media backlash along with widespread boycott threats. Taking a stand is a gamble, so good on them if they choose to push an ethical agenda. Or would you prefer a throwback to 90’s sweatshop human rights abuses so companies stop appropriating their customers ethical positions to improve their image and sales?


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