Black History Month ™

When is support no longer support? With the uprising of visibility for “awareness months,” the surge of people jumping on the bandwagon comes as well

Yasmine Elsayed (she/her) // Contributor

With it being Black History Month, many companies have launched marketing campaigns supporting the Black community. Throughout February, people have begun to be more aware of the difficulties that Black people have gone through and will continue to go through. But unfortunately, while marketing campaigns shed light on these issues, their absence is also quite noticeable throughout the rest of the year. So the question is, what do companies do outside of Black History Month? Is it spotlighting, or is it capitalism?

Social media has become an influential factor in initiating protests online. For example, Instagram users and other social media platforms began posting black squares in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. A week after George Floyd’s murder, an event known as “Blackout Tuesday,” the online movement highlighted police brutality and systematic racism. Moreover, it directed attention to black voices. While this is very endearing of the global online community, some users explained that black images and valuable hashtags stopped the people from getting the details they needed. People advised users that rather than using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag to consider typing it out instead or not post anything on that particular Tuesday to allow the flow of information to reach everyone. In addition, users began to change their profile pictures to black rather than spam-post to show solidarity. This turned out better as those who follow certain celebrities or brands began to see where they stand. However, in order for us to have the current –  somewhat – freedom to express our politics, others had to sacrifice their careers. 

This unfortunately, isn’t new. In October of 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos created one of the most notable events in sports history. During the Olympic games in Mexico City, both Smith and Carlos raised their fists in the air on the winners’ podium. However, during those times, it was perceived as a “black power” movement that gained a lot of negativity from the public. Smith explained that it was a “human rights salute.” Shortly afterward, Smith and Carlos were dismissed from the Olympic games and made to never compete again in the Olympic games.  

In October of 2018, Puma released a line of footwear that commemorates the event that happened 50 years prior. Chief Executive of Puma, Bjorn Gulden, stated, “what [Smith] did then … was the bravest thing an athlete has ever done when you think about the consequences.” Furthermore, Gulden disclosed that Puma sponsored Smith for over 50 years, and in fact, the shoes that Smith took onto the winners’ podium were Puma shoes. 

In addition, all the proceeds of Puma’s #REFORM or “Power Through Peace” campaign went to charity. Regardless, after being quiet for so long, Smith expressed in the documentary film With Drawn Arms (2020), “In 1968, Black athletes were expected to perform and shut up. We were dealing with racism. We were dealing with not having a voice. Running became my voice. I knew something had to be done. My next move would be immortalised in history.”

Alternately, Puma’s strong rival footwear company, Nike, released its campaign featuring NFL player Colin Kaepernick, celebrating Nike’s “Just Do It” trademark. In the 2016 NFL pre-season, Kaepernick took a knee during the American national anthem. And, much like Smith, he has not played since. However, in 2017 he spent advocating and raising awareness of human rights issues, specifically against systemic racism and police brutality. By the end of 2017, Nike created the famous tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” With Kaepernick in the background.

 Tommie Smith and Colin Kaepernick sacrificed their dreams to voice their beliefs. Advocating to end racism and a human rights salute, they fought for that and put everything on the line. However, do Nike and Puma think the same way? Are they willing to sacrifice it all? To put it simply, no.

The main objective of a corporation is to maximise profits. Nike and Puma use social issues to capture the public’s interest and generate profit off of it. Neither companies are discreet on how they use social issues to capitalise. According to Racheal Chong’s “Cause-Related Marketing: Just Plain Ol’ Marketing?” columnist in the Huffington Post, “companies use cause-related marketing to both increase profits and better society and include activist messages; in advertising.” 

As times change, so do the cause-related marketing strategies. Fortunately for this year, Nike actually took steps towards actual change – with their new campaign to donate a large grants to the Black Community Commitment, an organization dedicated to causing lasting change within the Black community. 

On the other hand, Lily Zheng, in her article, “We’re Entering the Age of Corporate Social Justice,” describes how the people are demanding significant corporations to change. According to Zheng, companies with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs have higher profits than those that do not. Moreover, after George Floyd’s murder, consumers and employees demanded a change from CSR to Corporate Social Justice (CSJ), a term coined by Zheng. Zheng compares these frameworks in order to clarify why that change was necessary. 

The public no longer wants temporary marketing strategies; they want the companies to fully advocate for a social stance even if the dedicated month is over. Zheng had a striking statement in her article, “Consumers and other stakeholders want companies that see social good as a necessity, not just a marketing strategy. It’s up to companies to respond to this new challenge.” 

One would think that Corporate Social Justice should already give something in this day and age. However, it took over 50 years for most corporations to realize that maybe one-month advertisements for advocacy are not enough. Although the change is slow, almost non-existent, one can only hope. Sadly, this Black History Month for corporations will be like any other Black History Month they have gone through. Cause-related marketing strategies will start showing on billboards and television. Make-up, clothing, and shoe lines will emerge with celebrities as ambassadors for these brands. And, slowly, that hope is fading.   

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