Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Like many individuals who, post election, started sharing their political views in places and ways they never had before, companies, too, started speaking out. It seems that the old rules of keeping business and politics separate no longer apply. Instead of worrying that partisan messages could ostracize customers, marketers are now banking on the opposite.

As Amanda Hess reported in The New York Times, “Companies have long marketed their wares around causes; by raising awareness about some issues, they lift their brand names, too. Those campaigns have typically focused on safely nonpartisan matters, like curing cancer or ‘empowering women.’ But lately the forces of national politics and online media have conspired to polarize the marketing landscape.”

Perhaps it’s simply a sign of the times. Political realities are too devastating for anyone to stay quiet. And perhaps corporate leaders with big audiences and powerful platforms are thinking the same.

In 2016, veteran journalist Cokie Roberts made a political statement in a way she had never done before in her several decades of journalism. Explaining her choice to speak out, she told NPR:

"I know about the dark times in our history where we have gone backwards. Those have not been useful times in our history. Not to point out that this is a moment in history where we could be backward instead of forward might be a disservice….there are times in our history when you might be disappointed if I didn't take a position like that."

Some CEOs and corporate leaders could be thinking the same. And as someone afraid of the political reach of this administration and its intent on limiting rights of women and minorities, I am happy to know of more powerful voices on “our” side. After all, in this capitalist country, companies are more powerful than individuals, or even politicians. Why not use it for good?

But that is exactly what makes me skeptical. Because as much as I want to believe the message is authentic, I also know it’s also simply good business. As any marketer knows, selling a product comes down to understanding your user. Speak to them in a style and place that resonates, and with a meaningful message that connects to their emotions and you can sell anything. Though estimates vary, it’s likely more than 2 million women participated in Women’s Marches around the world in January, and many more watched from home in support.

Does the intent matter? Not necessarily, though Hess points out it could disrupt the original intent of the message.

“The trend can draw attention to the activist messaging, but it can also dilute, deflect and distract from the cause, leading audiences away from the hard work of political action and civic organization and toward the easy comfort of a consumer choice.”

The resistance infused marketing is not far off from what has come to be known as “empowerment” marketing. The Dove campaigns, and Always' Run Like a Girl, and every new conference urging attendees to pay thousands of dollars to finally be “empowered”.

“It’s a series of objects and experiences you can purchase while the conditions determining who can access and accumulate power stay the same. The ready participation of well-off women in this strategy also points to a deep truth about the word “empowerment”” that it has never been defined by the people who actually need it,” wrote Jia Tolentino in “How Empowerment Became Something For Women To Buy.”

Are these organizations really progressing the cause or simply profiting from it? More than simply inciting slacktivism, this type of empowerment or resistance infused marketing could be even more dangerous because it can distract from the real problems.

I would be more impressed by an organization that hires more women, pays them more on average when when they don’t ask for it, and promotes them even when they haven’t demonstrated they already have more than the experience required.

But sadly, in reality, often the exact people advocating for equal rights are the ones exemplifying and perpetuating the flawed system within their organizations.

Take Thinx for example. As Hess notes, Thinx, the company that produces “period” underwear, was one of the companies boldly taking a partisan perspective post election. It had already made a name for itself as a leader in feminist branding, pushing the boundaries of perceptions of women with its product, but also with its marketing. (Pushing to use the word “periods” in their marketing almost prevented them from advertising in the subway, they said.) But a recent lawsuit brought against the CEO reveals the company did not always practice the same feminist beliefs it preached.

In the filing and on Glassdoor her employees cited not having birth control, being paid much less than market rates (except for two men in the office), not feeling free to speak their opinions or feeling respected, and finally, not feeling safe. It’s former head of PR has just filed a sexual harassment suit against the former CEO.

Sure, there are many startup stories that are equal to or worse than this one. Decent health care is rare in early stage companies, I can say from experience, and basic HR policies are consistently ignored until it’s often too late. That needs to change. But I expect companies that put women at the forefront of their products and marketing to be the leaders.

The reason the Thinx story and others like it feel so especially icky, and the reason I find my skepticism overtaking my enthusiasm for every company adding their name to the resistance, is that this story is not a new one for women. Too often, companies and politicians, champion women’s perspectives and women’s issues when it’s convenient and in theory, while ignoring the reality of their experience.

It’s the Congressmen and Congresswomen who push forward legislation around equality and fairness, but run their congressional offices through intimidation, sexist practices, and with seriously underpaid staff.

It’s the NRA and gun advocates claiming gun rights are women’s rights. “All of America’s women, you aren’t free if you aren’t free to defend yourself,” said National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. Yet, as The Trace found, more studies have discovered guns endanger women much more often than they protect them. A gun in a woman’s house triples the likelihood that she will be killed, and more often than not, that death is caused by their partner not a stranger. And given the opportunity to help women protect themselves, the NRA have fought to protect the so called “boyfriend loophole”, which allows men convicted of domestic abuse to retain their firearms.

These stories may seem disconnected, but the experience of a person or organization with power doing one thing and acting a different way, is consistent through history - especially when it comes to women’s rights.

Fortunately, we have increasingly more access and insight into what is happening behind closed doors. While louder voices might get attention, we are consistently reminded that it is the individual voices that still have power.

When I chatted with two girlfriends about the commercialization of the resistance over text, they agreed we are still the powerful ones.

“I do think that there is power in your purchase and am happy to give companies business if they really are supporting the resistance, no matter what the true reason is,” wrote one friend.

“It’s a good reminder to do your due diligence on companies you buy from...like, are they owned by women or minorities? Have they given money to Trump? Also, that there’s value in supporting local businesses and the progressiveness of anti-consumerism,” wrote another.

I agree. When I heard Mitch McConnell utter his now infamous tone deaf statement that quickly became a feminist rallying cry, I also wanted to own the words. Among the many choices, I opted for a “She persisted” tote bag where profits were donated to Planned Parenthood.

But increasingly I’m going to do my best to see how the statements a company makes match up with the money they donate and the policies they practice.

It was reading Susan Fowler’s blog post that made me finally delete Uber.

“When people show you who they are, believe them,” said Maya Angelou. We should believe companies, too.

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