Two weeks ago, social media lit up in a fever dream of outrage. This time, because a corporation hijacked the imagery and aesthetics of resistance movements as part of a daft strategy to sell soft drink to millennials. Most disturbingly, Pepsi’s ad appropriated the imagery of the Black Lives Matter movement, ultimately trivialising police brutality, which continues to devastate black communities across the US. No doubt, as many activists have pointed out, the ad is racist as all hell – a kick in the face to anyone deeply committed to anti-racist and anti-police struggles – and deserves its mass condemnation. However I suspect that there’s another hidden, murkier reason that this ad got the left – particularly the white, woketivist left – into such a tizzy: because it draws attention to our own always-already co-opted, neutered gestures of resistance.
The ad itself is like an old Marxist professor’s dystopian nightmare: activist youth appear as soulless avatars of trendy-materialistic individualism, engaging in politically meaningless outbursts of dissent and self-empowerment. This is a world where our material manifestations of dissent – slogans, signs, marches – have become empty signifiers, devoid of content, and disconnected from any concrete struggle. It’s a world where the logics of branding and commerce are completely interwoven with all aspects of our daily lives, even our rebellions. And when we take an honest look at popular progressive actions – some of which have started to feel more like parties than protests – this world is not so dissimilar from our own.
Some of us on the progressive left earned our weekly wokeness badges by claiming we would boycott PepsiCo, even though that’s almost physically impossible. Such a boycott arguably embodies the kind of vapid activism that drove us all to such distress in the first place: it is the type of protest that’s flashy and public, where you can brand yourself as ‘doing something’ without committing to working towards substantial change. It’s been remarked that ‘protest is the new brunch’ for a newly outraged left that practices social activism by ‘gramming themselves wearing ethical paperclips and holding witty posters.’ In the individualised, entrepreneurial ethos of neoliberal capitalism, it appears that political participation has become part of our own self-realisation project.
I’d wager that, in part, the commercial struck such a severe nerve precisely because it (albeit unwittingly) called these kinds of shallow, self-serving protest actions into question. It conceptualised activism as a series of acts driven by self-gratification, rather than by genuinely altruistic impulses of philanthropy or social justice. Far from delivering an impact on political outcomes, emphasis is placed on what makes activists feel good, whether that be partying, wearing empowering tees, or consuming woke soft drink. Under magnification, many of our own acts of popular ‘protest’ seem as vacuous and stripped of meaning as Pepsi’s PR brain trust has unwittingly made them out to be.
That’s not to say that populist feel-good protests are bad or pointless, per se, but for all the self-righteous huff doing the rounds in progressive social media, it’s surprising and revealing that no one really wants to have a conversation about their effectiveness or political value. Or, what it means that the traditional boundary between ‘activist’ and ‘consumer’ has become so blurred that both identity categories can comfortably coexist. We like to think that brand and commodity culture is completely divorced from our genuine acts of humanitarianism, but as ads like Pepsi’s remind us, that’s simply no longer the case.
One of the enduring powers of neoliberal capitalism as a global force (to give it its due) is its ability to adapt and incorporate left-wing activism and youthful dissidence – social realms once considered ‘outside’ the consumer economy. How easily our radical movements are harnessed and reshaped for profit! This ad is another grim reminder that, within the contemporary culture industry, social activism has well and truly shifted into a marketable commodity for corporations and individuals alike.
Brands like incorporating youthful deviance into their campaigns, because (if done a little savvier than Pepsi) they make the business appear novel, exciting, cutting edge. As Adorno and Horkheimer succinctly put it seventy-plus years ago: ‘Realistic dissidence is the trademark of anyone who has a new idea in business.’ In the end, in spite of any gaffes or hiccups, Pepsi, and the culture industry, still succeed, because ‘consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.’
Since the anti-globalisation protests of the 90s, major corporations have intensified their focus on social activism, realising that their brand identity has to appeal to changing, progressive values. ‘Ethical’ corporations and media personalities have worked out how to commandeer us into their own campaigns, recruiting us to buy their shit, wear their shit and share their shit for a better world.
Corporations and individuals know there’s a mutual social and cultural currency to be earned by branding themselves as woke and progressive. We all want to be recognised as one of the cool kids fighting, partying and consuming on the right side of history. Performances of wokeness can benefit our social standing and increase the viability of our individual projects and products; think about how many social justice proclamations end with links to people’s new album, new video, or new (ahem) hot take. Between the individual and the cause there is a symbiotic relationship of mutual promotion and it can be mighty difficult to determine whether it’s the cause or the activist that most benefits from the deal. In an era when visibility has such currency, when we’re all relentlessly branding and self-promoting, it’s hard to know what’s authentic or insincere, and what’s self-interested or community-minded.
These are the murky, under-discussed consequences of the neoliberal branded self in youth culture and activism. A protest with no publicity or branding probably won’t achieve much, but what actually happens to activism when it’s ‘aided’ by branding techniques and flashy entrepreneurial individualism? To an extent, the market and corporate media demand we be self-interested: crafting woke self-image captures attention, interest, opportunities. But when the emphasis is so much on the individuals themselves (‘Trump is not MY president’), any actual concrete political cause or project can be distorted or completely removed. All that’s left is the performance of activism.
If we are to make substantial claims to community activism or solidarity, we have to do work that’s not so sexy, photo-friendly, or self-affirming. We have to be collectively rather than individually-motivated, work-oriented rather than image-oriented. These sporadic pretences of action – like dragging Kendall Jenner, Pepsi, or other Monsters of the Week – won’t help us fight injustice. We have to commit to broader struggles, specific resistances the way that so many activists, unionists and environmentalists do, unheralded, and on our behalf, every single day.