Corporate activism: The uncanny valley of advertisement

Summer Merkle | Cartoonist

“Trans people exist.” – @Oreo on Twitter, Feb. 25.

Is this jarring to anyone else? Not the “Trans people exist” part. The continuing push for trans inclusivity is a good thing, even if that statement is about the most milquetoast take possible on the subject. No, the jarring part is just how hollow this feels coming from Oreo.

The statement coincided with the House of Representatives passing the Equality Act, an LGBTQ rights bill barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in of areas such as employment, housing, education and credit.

Perhaps it’s the cynicism that comes from years of watching billion-dollar corporations try to hide behind quirky branded personalities on social media, but this doesn’t look like a courageous act. It doesn’t look like a noble stance that puts the needs of the disadvantaged before their own. What this does look like is Oreo’s advertising or PR department seeing trans rights as a trendy bandwagon to hop on. It’s a shallow marketing stunt.

But, for better or worse, it’s a marketing stunt that’s working. More than 500,000 likes and nearly 60,000 retweets are engagement numbers usually reserved for someone with the last name Kardashian or Jenner.

Oreo’s sudden appetite for trans rights is part of a larger trend of corporations attaching themselves to social movements to score clout. Last summer at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, countless brands inundated social media feeds with statements like the Cards Against Humanity-sounding “Gushers wouldn’t be Gushers without the Black community.”

These statements became vague, uniform and ubiquitous to the point of parodying themselves, not that the internet wasn’t already taking care of that.

A similar statement tsunami washed over social media when an insurrectionist mob stormed the Capitol in January. The Axe Twitter account notably tweeted, “We’d rather be lonely than with that mob.”

This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, any progress is good progress. When it comes to things like LGBTQ or racial issues, the goal may be moving forward a mile, but gaining a foot is better than not moving forward at all. It’s also evidence corporations see public opinion is continuing to shift in favor of these movements. After all, does anyone really believe a brand would stick its neck out like this if the bean counters didn’t think the benefits would outweigh the costs?

On the other hand, that’s exactly why these statements sound so disingenuous and self-serving. At their heart they’re performative; they serve to advance the company’s interests above all else. The term “virtue signaling” is usually used in bad faith to attack those advocating for progressive causes, but if such a thing does actually exist, this is the textbook example.

It’s up to each individual (read: consumer) to decide if they think corporate activism is authentic or insincere. Just remember, even if a company says it shares your values, it probably still isn’t your friend.