How Corporations Should Do Activism

Micah White, PhD
Aug 1, 2019 · 6 min read

This is why corporations, intergovernmental organizations and powerful elites are now actively seeking to harness the power of social movements to further their agendas:

Within a month of the start of Occupy Wall Street, a social protest that I co-created, more than half of Americans had heard about the movement. In fact, a Gallup poll released on October 18, 2011, reported that 56 percent of Americans were closely following news about Occupy. That means that more than 174 million people were actively engaged in monitoring the progress of our movement: They knew our name, our slogans, our tactics.

To put things in perspective, the 2014 Super Bowl was “the most watched program in American television history,” according to NBC, with peak viewership of 120.8 million. In other words, Occupy Wall Street was watched by more people for a longer time with deeper engagement than the biggest television program in history. And the movement received far more donations — close to $1 million in cash and a warehouse full of supplies — than it cost to create. Five years later, many Americans still remember Occupy while, I’d wager, few Americans remember the ads played (at $4.5 million a pop) during the Super Bowl in 2014.

The potential is obvious. So here’s my advice to these corporations now looking to deploy activism:

Don’t Market to Activists

Witnessing the rise of the activist class — the cognitariat of highly educated, deeply indebted, hyperconnected, post-ironic, and sincerely passionate millennials — most businesses have reacted in one of two ways.

First, corporations make an effort to reposition themselves as socially conscious. While well-meaning social entrepreneurs and advocates of corporate social responsibility sincerely hope to replace all products with sustainable products, other companies have a less virtuous motivation. The result is “greenwashing” — when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.

This is often achieved by launching pricey specialty products that appeal to an environmentally, socially, and politically engaged demographic. The assumption is that activists will loyally support brands, and happily spend more on products, that embody their lofty ideals. According to a 2015 report by Nielson, this assumption is probably reasonable: “66 percent of global respondents say they are willing to pay more for sustainable goods, up from 55 percent in 2014 (and 50 percent in 2013).”

As a new parent, I’ve seen this marketing trend firsthand in the baby clothing market where boutique shops offer luxurious soybean protein fiber and organic cotton bibs. Clorox, a brand synonymous with potentially ecologically harmful bleach, now has a Green Works brand. Perhaps the best (or worst) example of greenwashing is the rebranding carried out in 2000 by BP, one of the world’s largest oil producers, under the eco-friendly slogan “Beyond Petroleum.”

With its proliferation, the strategy is losing its effectiveness. “Greenwash has become so pervasive that consumers are growing jaded about corporate green claims,” writes Thomas P. Lyon, professor of business economics and public policy at the University of Michigan.

So corporations go one step further by transforming products themselves into a form of protest. Some call this strategy “cause marketing,” which is loosely defined as a mutually beneficial partnership between a for-profit business and a non-profit cause. I call it “protestwashing.” The basic idea of protestwashing is that by purchasing, wearing, or consuming certain products, we cease to be consumers and start being activists.

Consider, for example, luxury brand Bulgari’s #RaiseYourHand campaign that benefits the nonprofit Save the Children by selling a $510 sterling silver and black ceramic ring. Or Doc Marten’s #StandForSomething marketing campaign that urges consumers to celebrate nonconformity by wearing their iconic boots. Likewise, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Anheuser-Busch deployed #BrewDemocracy advertising to associate their alcoholic beverage with American electoral democracy.

(Using a hashtag in a marketing campaign is a telltale sign of protestwashing.)

One seemingly counterintuitive example: The stock price of gunmakers such as Smith & Wesson surge, and gun sales skyrocket, after mass shootings prompt politicians to suggest that AR-15 rifles might be banned. These gunmakers have successfully repositioned their product as a protest purchase. Gun hoarding has become a form of activism, akin to protestors stockpiling cases of soda to demonstrate against the recently passed sugary drink tax in Philadelphia.

Both greenwashing and protestwashing tend to embrace forms of activism that are indirect, charitable, and oriented around feeling good about one’s consumption. In other words, a consumer’s purchase typically results in a donation to a nonprofit that promises to do good — rather than an actual act of defiant protest that directly challenges the status quo.

The rhetoric of protest is used to promote behaviors that are not actually acts of protest. Tweeting #StandForSomething may spread
a meme but it doesn’t directly contest power. Activists know this intuitively. That is why greenwashing and protestwashing ultimately provide an unsatisfying simulacrum of activism — and why both strategies will see diminishing returns as activists wise up.

Do Create Activists

The only way to actually target activists, and convert them into lifelong adherents, is to integrate your brand into the unfolding social movement storyline of the people’s quest toward greater democracy. And the only way to do that is to:

  1. Abandon the profit motive. The movement is not synonymous with your brand, so don’t put your brand on the movement.
  2. Let go of control. Let participants dictate the direction of the movement even if it challenges your original intentions.
  3. Risk everything. Realize there is no safe way to play with protest and that the sensation of danger is what grants movements authenticity.

I acknowledge that these three preconditions are anathema to contemporary corporate culture. However, the reward of launching a social
movement on the scale of Occupy Wall Street, which fundamentally changed the discourse in America and influenced millions around the world, is priceless.

Social movements engage people at the deepest possible level, teaching them new concepts and behaviors that last a lifetime. They reshape how participants see the world. Global social movements are the only forces capable of mobilizing humanity to solve the global challenges facing us. Rather than target activists, social movements create activists.

So go beyond social agency — advocate collective agency. I encourage you to experiment repeatedly with sparking a real social movement that spirals outside your control. Corporations, with their privileged access to financial resources and the media, are in a unique position to inspire planetary movements that might save humanity from ecological, economic, and spiritual catastrophe.

How? There is no simple, step-by-step formula. Social movements always come as a surprise. And many theorists of social change have come to the conclusion that social movements cannot be consciously created but are instead unpredictable collective manifestations. Based on my experience, I respectfully disagree. I believe social movements are created out of three elements:

  1. A willing historical moment (the time must be ripe)
  2. A contagious mood (a collective epiphany that spreads like a virus)
  3. A new tactic (a new collective behavior, a social ritual, that participants believe will create social change)

Of these three elements, only two are within our reasonable control. The third, a willing historical moment, is notoriously impossible to create or even to predict beforehand.

Corporations of the future will understand the unique value of social movements and learn the art of social movement creation in order to reach the greatest number of people most quickly at the least cost. And we will all benefit because a positive social movement anywhere increases the chances of a transformative social revolution everywhere.


Micah White is the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, author of The End of Protest and founder of Activist Graduate School. Get in touch with him at micahmwhite.com

Micah White, PhD

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I am the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, author of The End of Protest and founder of Activist Graduate School. Learn more and get in touch at micahmwhite.com

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