Richson: The trouble with brand activism


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We are heading into the season in which interest in partnering with a charitable cause tends to spike; we should also feel compelled to sift through the various kinds of charity and activism and to ensure that we are invested in a cause rather than a brand.

As citizens of a monetarily driven society, we figure out pretty early on in life that you can turn practically anything into a product that can be sold and capitalized on. I’ll never forget how in awe I was of the kids at school, in the heyday of the Livestrong wristband era, that somehow had a monopoly on the popular bands and had acquired enough that they were actually selling them at school for their own purposes. I remember being vaguely aware of the Livestrong mission but not so attached to it that I didn’t look down on the fact that people were actually turning a secondary profit.

This type of brand activism has since become increasingly popular. GAP’s popular Red campaign is nearly a decade old and still going strong with its T-shirts and other merchandise, the profits of which allegedly go toward primarily combating HIV/AIDS globally. The Red campaign has endured critics who question its transparency. Yet people seem to blindly consume these material goods exuding a diluted form of activism that seems to be more self-serving and validating than actually charitable.

Maybe visibility is the greater good for many of the causes that have been capitalized on in brand activism, but if that is the case, then we shouldn’t pretend that by buying a T-shirt we are doing a humanitarian service. If one person goes home and searches for a cause after seeing a reference to it on someone’s clothing or wrist, then maybe that is the ultimate success story.

However, like charities, brand activism is not perfect and must be viewed critically by consumers who want to know where their money is really headed.

Perhaps we can distinguish brand activism that is message-based rather than profit-based as different from activism that is a joint venture between a for-profit business and a cause. For example, clothing company American Apparel has been known for its activist-based shirts (yet also, contrastingly, for its objectification of female models) with proclamations such as “GAY OK” in support of equal rights for the gay community. American Apparel, with such shirts, endorses an organization called GLAAD. American Apparel also has a shirt with the statement “Legalize LA,” a product from which full proceeds go to Los Angeles immigrant-rights groups. In these cases, the brand is not the charity. Although we still have to wonder if the brand benefits more than it should.

The bottom line is there are varying degrees of brand activism, as well as there are varying degrees of the stakes various companies hold in you buying their hip, liberally minded T-shirts. Be wary of what exactly you are endorsing and who is benefiting from your consumer activities.

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