The past month has been rough for a lot of people. The inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States made the abstract very real and has lead to a series of executive orders, cabinet nominations and congressional actions that have made people more afraid for their livelihood, the future of their children, the fate of the environment and much more. Paranoia is pervasive but in many regards it’s well-warranted.
One of the lightening rods has been around how brands, specifically their chief executives, will or won’t work with Trump and his administration. Elon Musk has received criticism for taking part in meetings, as has the head of Uber and others. Many people want them to not only refuse to cooperate with the Trump White House but also have the brand as a whole make a public statement in opposition to what large swaths of the population sees as policies that are xenophobic, disrespectful to women and minorities and much more.
There’s a case to be made for a company taking a very public stance for or against societal issues. But there are also very real issues in doing so. Plus, it’s not actually the cure-all people are hoping it will be.
Brands Aren’t People
It’s important to remember this. Brands and companies are entities, constructs that are designed to further the interests of a select few. Unless we’re talking about a non-profit advocacy group, these companies are out to make money by selling a product. That’s their core goal. To think otherwise is to project your own issues and desires onto the company.
Despite that, people keep pressuring companies to come out against the policies of Trump and his advisors. These people expect big, loud statements decrying executive orders and other actions, not just the kind of legal statements and briefs that have been filed enumerating the fiscal and resource damage that could be done should some of these rules be put in place.
Brands and companies have put themselves in this position. If they don’t like the pressure to have public positions on the issues of the day they have only themselves to blame. It’s the situation that’s been created after years of changing their Facebook avatars to reflect issues like marriage equality and more. Not that these aren’t worthy, important causes, but 20 years ago no one really seemed to care whether J.C. Penny’s had an opinion on a Supreme Court case or new regulation.
Social media has put us in this situation. All our friends have such strong opinions on these issues, opinions that elicit strong reactions and which lead to either rampant sharing or mass-unfriending for the crime of not sharing a position on education policy or other issue in common. Since brand profiles have intruded on the space that we use to connect with friends, families and coworkers, the pressure to also have an opinion has increased exponentially.
It’s an off-shoot, I think, of how people don’t want to see your promotional Tweet during times of tragedy. Social media managers are trained at this point to go and pause all publishing when there are school shootings or other horrific events because selling toothpaste or other products during those times is seen as uncouth and disrespectful. Well now we live in times of constant high tensions, with protests popping up left and right and people in a constant state of outrage. Brand publishing can’t be suspended indefinitely, so the expectation seems to be that if you’re going to keep promoting your clothing line at a time of great unrest then you’d best have an opinion on Trump’s move to undo the protections of the Dodd-Frank Act.
A Brand Tweet Won’t Do Anything
In short, this is lazy thinking. Protesting is hard and takes time and effort, so it’s easier to hold a company accountable for its actions than to be accountable for your own.
I don’t want to say that everyone who wants Target to make a big splash with an anti-Trump statement is lazy. That’s of course not true. But this kind of thinking seems to be indicative of a mindset that wants someone else to do the heavy-lifting. And it’s easier to identify the place you buy your paper towels and put the responsibility to make a change on their shoulders than to call your Congressional representative and speak to them about why you’re against a cabinet nominee.
There’s nothing wrong with voting with your wallet. That has a long history of working and it’s why many companies will highlight their corporate social responsibility efforts, something that’s incredibly important and can effect great change. But if you’re looking for great societal change, companies aren’t the ones who are going to do it, those within the systems of governmental power are.
Similarly, it’s not fair to put all the pressure to protest at every given opportunity on musicians and artists. Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime performance was brought with expectations that she’d defecate on a Trump effigy or something but it wound up being a Rorschach Test, with conservatives and liberals each reading into it what they wanted to. There’s been pressure on musicians to speak out at every occasion and for actors, directors and others to boycott the Oscars as a form of protest to the current political environment. It’s all part of a movement to make someone else accountable for our collective fate.
There’s a time and place for companies, brands and celebrities to take stands on societal or political issues. Celebrities in particular should be just as active as their fellow citizens to act up when they disagree or agree with the state of the country and the world as a whole. But that doesn’t mean they are the surrogates to take the fight directly to those in power on behalf of the masses. That’s too much pressure to put on their, not all of which is warranted, and too much to take off our own shoulders. We have elected representatives for that and if you don’t like the job currently being done, there are mechanisms to rectify that situation. Act up. Act out. Protest. Do it, just don’t wait for an actor to make a speech at an awards show to fight your battles for you.