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Construction students Taylor Bridges, Leila Fraschetti, Emmanuel Medina, Mary Coleman and John Kozubik (left to right) applaud their peers as they speak about their appreciation for their teachers and the resources they were provided.
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Examining corporate activism: Performative vs. true allyship

On June 2, 2020, companies posted black screens in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and in protest of the murder of George Floyd. On June 1, 2023, traditional company profile pictures were replaced with logos bedazzled in bright rainbows to show support for Pride Month. At the surface level, these actions seem to demonstrate support for Black and LGBTQ+ communities, but they are both examples of performative activism. In recent years, a new phenomenon has emerged in which consumers expect businesses to leverage their economic power to take action on environmental and social issues. In today’s world, activism has become a trend, but in reality, this is a facade to increase profit by expanding the number of potential customers through a false sense of inclusivity and support.

According to the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, performative activism, or allyship, is the “practice of symbolically or outwardly speaking out about social justice causes through words, posts and shallow gestures but doing little to improve the conditions that plague marginalized groups.” In 2020, the women’s clothing brand Anthropologie posted a Maya Angelou quote that preached the importance of diversity and racial equality. At the same time, Anthropologie was exposed for its employees’ alleged use of a code word when Black customers entered a store along with reports from Black customers who claimed they were followed while they were shopping due to suspicion of shoplifting.  

The disconnect between a company’s words and actions isn’t always as evident as with Anthropologie. Many companies pledge to donate to LGBTQ+ or BLM organizations and claim to have welcoming workplaces but then donate to politicians who have spoken out against legislation that protects the rights of those same minorities. 

On the federal level, companies are recognized as political action committees (PACs) when they receive $1000 or more for use towards affecting federal election outcomes. American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), a telecommunications company, was among the first few companies to implement a nondiscrimination policy and was a key sponsor of LGBTQ+ advocacy groups: The Trevor Project and LOVELOUD Festival. 

Despite this, through its employee-funded PAC, AT&T has given more than $3 million dollars to House representatives who openly spoke out against the Equality Act, a 2019 bill that would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include the LGBTQ+ community as a protected class from discrimination and ensure equal access to federal services.

While some may argue that any activism is good activism, regardless of whether it is performative or not, a study conducted by Bentley University shows that consumer spending aligns with companies that practice true allyship. Susan Dobscha, a marketing professor at Bentley explains that true allyship materializes when companies “authentically respond to critical social moments with a well-thought-out message that includes some commitment to effecting positive change.” In the study, which was published in the Journal of Association for Consumer Research, Dobscha and her co-researchers found that consumers are well-versed in differentiating between genuine support and the prioritization of profit. This conclusion was reached through an experiment examining brand allyship and market performance in the context of the Blackout Tuesday campaign, which was the protest against racism and police brutality. The experiment looked at the top 100 brands in the U.S. and categorized each company as true allies, performative allies or neutral based on the level of activism each company engaged in. Over the course of three intervals: one month, three months and six months, Dobescha and her colleagues evaluated the stock market performance for each company, finding that “true allies” stock prices had risen higher than “neutral” and “performative ally” brands. 

Illustration by Lauren Olsen

Because consumers can discern between true activism and performative activism, companies should be even more incentivized to take meaningful action and go above and beyond vague posts or tone-deaf statements. Performative activism is not only identifiable but also immoral. Even though businesses have the right to support whoever they want, when the intentions are in the wrong place, businesses are attempting to profit off of the struggle of marginalized groups. While supporting the BLM or the LGBTQ+ community may seem like a trend, being a part of the community is not. When it comes to activism, the intention should not be to maximize profit, but rather to support equity and the advancement of minorities in society.

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