After reading this, I wonder if artists or activists have been unwittingly influenced/inspired by some of these token, ineffective campaigns? If the culture is openly celebrating these supposed victories, one might believe they are actually effective.
Recently while browsing the Web I came across UrbanDictionary.com, which is sort of a wiki of contemporary slang. I found some of the newer words listed there amusing, like “hobosexual” (the opposite of metrosexual; someone who cares little about their looks), “consumerican,” (“a particularly American brand of consumerism”), and “wikidemia” (“an academic work passed off as scholarly yet researched entirely on Wikipedia”).
Then I came across a word that put me into a more thoughtful zone: “slacktivism.”
“Slacktivism” (alternative spelling “slactivism”) is a fusion of the words “slacker” and “activism,” and UrbanDicationary.com defines it as “the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.” It refers to ersatz acts that people perform that they have somehow come to believe are full of meaning, like slapping a magnetic ribbon on your car to “support the troops,” wearing a colored rubber wristband to “fight cancer,” or refusing to buy gasoline on a certain day to protest high gas prices, instead of, say, actually changing your lifestyle to use less gas.
According to UrbanDictionary.com’s definition, slacktivism pertains only to individual behavior, but shortly after I grasped the meaning of the word, I started to see that slacktivism is really much bigger than that. I started to see that corporations perpetrate large-scale, organized slacktivism as a public relations strategy to subtly derail social movements aimed at creating beneficial change.
So what form does corporate-sponsored slacktivism take, and how can people recognize it? The best way to describe it is to give some examples.
Corporate-Sponsored Slacktivism Example #1: “Smoking or Non-smoking?”
By the late 1980s, more and more cities and towns had started banning smoking in restaurants, stores and other public places, and smoking was becoming less socially acceptable. Smoking bans encouraged people to smoke less, even quit, and this in turn threatened cigarette sales. To counter this spreading smoke-free movement, in 1987 a group of mid-level Philip Morris executives convened a secret meeting at Hilton Head, North Carolina, to find a way to undermine the public’s growing desire for clean indoor air and to preserve the social acceptability of smoking. Tobacco companies can’t fight smoking restrictions openly, since they would be seen as self-serving and would lose credibility, so PM had to come up with a more sophisticated way to slow the public’s movement towards smoking bans. The Hilton Head meeting led to PM’s Operation Downunder, a comprehensive, long-term, under-the-radar strategy in which PM switched from opposing smoking bans to advocating separation of people into smoking and non-smoking areas in restaurants and other public places. PM then engaged in a massive PR program to promote the establishment of separate smoking sections, while lobbying behind-the-scenes to enact state laws that mandated smoking sections. The laws PM pushed also contained provisions designed to prevent smaller political subdivisions, like cities, counties and towns, from making their own, stricter local smoking laws. PM called this its “Accomodation/Preemption Strategy.”
By and large, the public went along with PM’s “Accommodation Program;” many states unwittingly enacted PM’s proposed “solution” of “Accommodation/Preemption” laws, and people came to expect to hear the question “Smoking or non-smoking?” whenever they walked into a restaurant. The only problem was that smoke didn’t know it was supposed to stay in the smoking sections, and after a couple of decades nonsmokers realized that they still had to breathe secondhand smoke everywhere they went. PM’s “Accommodation/Preemption” strategy was an ingenious move for the tobacco industry: it assured that smokers could continue to smoke indoors practically everywhere and gave people a genuine feeling that something had been done to address the secondhand smoke problem, when in fact little had really changed. Most importantly, pushing smoking/non-smoking apartheid achieved a key strategic goal for PM: it delayed laws requiring 100% smoke-free places for decades.
PM’s “Accommodation Strategy” was an early example of tightly-engineered corporate-sponsored slacktivism: it advanced a fake policy or action that made people feel like progress was being made, while really preserving the status quo and protecting corporate profits.
Example #2: The American Chemistry Council and Plastic Bag Recycling Programs
Taking a leaf from the tobacco industry, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Progressive Bag Affiliates (PBA), organizations that represent the plastics industry, are now using a similar strategy of corporate-sponsored slacktivism to derail efforts to reduce use of plastic bags.
Plastic bags exact a heavy toll on the environment: they clog waterways, kill marine life, bollix up sewer systems, get caught in trees, and are an eyesore when blowing around as litter. Their manufacture consumes millions of barrels of petroleum, and since most plastic bags are used only once and then tossed, they create a massive waste stream. Cities, towns — even entire countries — have started encouraging people to reduce their use of plastic bags by taxing the bags, putting deposits on them or banning them completely. Like the cigarette makers back in the 1980s who were threatened by smoking bans, the plastics industry believes a massive cultural shift to use of non-disposable grocery bags would devastate their industry. To fight truly effective policies like deposits, taxes and bag bans, the ACC and PBA have started implementing a clever new strategy: wherever plastic bag bans are proposed, they zoom in and push for a watered-down measure that only requires retailers to start voluntary in-store bag recycling programs.
If advocating for a law that mandates a voluntary program sounds ludicrous, it’s because it is. When used alone, voluntary recycling programs do little to change people’s behavior. Voluntary recycling programs depend on the altruism of a few dedicated souls to be effective, and when implemented as a sole measure, they have a dismal record at keeping plastic bags out of the environment. But forcing a voluntary program on businesses makes politicians feel like they’ve done something to deal with the plastic bag problem. It also largely preserves the current level of use of plastic bags, because people are given no real motivation to change their behavior.
Once again, that’s the whole idea: ACC and PBA are pushing a slacktivist policy that preserves the status quo while derailing serious measures that are truly effective at motivating beneficial change.
Example #3: Cause-Related Marketing
Look around, and you start seeing examples of corporate-advanced slacktivism everywhere. Another example is “Cause-Related Marketing.”
A relative of mine was eager to go to a department store on a specific day to buy cosmetics, because the store advertised that on that day it was going to donate a percentage of its cosmetic sale profits to fighting breast cancer. I went along for the ride, and while my relative was doing a good turn by shopping for cosmetics, I asked a saleswoman what percentage of profits the store was donating to fight cancer. She didn’t know. Three, four clerks later, no one knew. Finally, someone called a manager, came back and told me it was a fraction of a percent — a tiny drop in the bucket compared to what the store would make that day from the throngs of women pouring through the doors who believed that they were going to help cure a dreaded disease by buying lipstick and mascara. It probably dawned on few, if any, of them how much more good they could do if they donated just of bit of their money directly to a breast cancer research institute or charity.
The Moral of the Story Is…
…the word slacktivism should not be dismissed lightly.
Most slacktivist individuals are probably genuinely well-meaning people who just don’t take the time to think about the value, or lack thereof, of their actions. They’re looking for an easy way to feel like they’re making a difference, and let’s face it — how damaging is it anyway to wear a rubber wristband or slap a magnetic ribbon on your car? The same can’t be said for large-scale, industrial-perpetrated slacktivism, which is highly planned, professionally coordinated and intended to advance a self-serving industrial agenda. Corporate-sponsored slacktivism is, in short, implemented to stop social change that could, in the long run, be crucial to society’s long-term well-being.
The bottom line? Learn the signs of corporate-sponsored slacktivism, and don’t be deceived. If a group appears and suddenly proposes a policy, program or action in response to a serious problem, ask yourself if the proposal will actually address the problem in a serious way. Does it seem just a little too easy, a little too simple or honestly insufficient to make real progress? If so, it is probably a form of corporate-sponsored slacktivism and should be passed up in favor of a more effective, proven solution.
This “slacktivism” really gets at the lamer sort of “expressive politics” that we’ve been thinking about. So this is very useful. But with the exception of cause related marketing, I’m not sure the corporate PR examples really fit. They are more of classic damage control: donate a million to build a library and forget about the miners who died sort of stuff Rockefeller did. I think the roots are deeper and closer to home: the “personal is political” wave of the 1960s counter culture and 1970s feminism and 1980s identity politics. A perversion of this, of course, but still the same impulse: by presenting myself I am making a political statement.
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