In early 2017, Pepsi released a three-minute “short film” with the title, “Live For Now Moments Anthem,” in which a denim-clad Kendall Jenner rips off a wig, sashays through a crowd of protesters assembled for some unidentifiable cause, grabs their signature soda can, and hands it to a police officer. In the ad, she makes peace through the Joy of Pepsi. In real life, the commercial was pulled within 24 hours for trivializing police brutality.
The Pepsi blunder, among the more egregious additions to the crisis-advertisement canon, made obvious something already pretty transparent: that corporations understood their audience’s desire for social change and planned to profit from it. Three years later, brands are still trying to Join The Conversation, but more earnestly, with a tenor of self-seriousness. In the past two months, as the global COVID-19 pandemic ravaged lives and jobs, companies digested human trauma into cloying inspirational montage at a rapid-fire pace. And last week, when the country broke out into protest (and police aggression) over the public murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin, corporations again chimed in. Some offered much-needed donations; others parroted vague statements of support against identical black-and-white backgrounds.
That corporate statements on social justice often stand at odds with their track records barely needs stating (check out their federal income taxes). But the moral gymnastics some perform can be astounding, as Judd Legum illustrated in his newsletter, Popular Information, on Tuesday. CitiGroup, for example, which tweeted a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, donated $242,000 to members of Congress with an “F” rating from the NAACP in the 2020 election cycle alone. Google, which also issued statements on the protests, has donated $351,000 to “F”-rated politicians this year. Is it worse that companies like Hobby Lobby, Walmart, and Volkswagen said nothing? It’s definitely on brand.
On May 31, Amazon tweeted, “The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop. Together we stand in solidarity with the Black community – our employees, customers, and partners – in the fight against systemic racism and injustice.”
The company did not explain, however, how they planned to start fighting. They could start with donating some money, given that Jeff Bezos is on track to become the world’s first trillionaire by 2026. Another recommendation, per the ACLU, “commit to stop selling face recognition surveillance technology that supercharges police abuse.” They were referring to the Amazon Ring, a video doorbell that has been slammed by civil rights organizations for incorporating facial recognition software and partnering with police departments. The fact that Amazon workers faced grueling conditions even before the global pandemic made delivery workers one of the most at-risk labor forces in the country, and even then, were denied hazard pay, sick leave, and basic sanitation seems like another good entry point.
Michael Bloomberg, who oversaw New York City’s unconstitutional “stop and frisk” policy, which stopped over 5 million people between 2002 and 2019, and overwhelmingly targeted Black communities, released a memo to his employees on May 31, stating, “The video of a Minneapolis police officer killing an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, as he begged for his life was deeply disturbing and profoundly wrong. It was horrifying – sickening – to watch, and it came after other recent killings of innocent Black Americans that were also appalling.”
Two years after stop-and-frisk searches peaked at 685,000 people in 2011, Bloomberg defended the program in a Washington Post op-ed titled “Stop and Frisk keeps New York safe,” in which he claimed “90 percent of all those who commit the murders and other violent crimes — are black and Hispanic.”
Bloomberg, who is worth an estimated $60 billion and has donated at least $10 billion to charitable causes and political campaigns, has not made any contributions in the wake of the protests.
On Tuesday morning, after a full week of police violence, a social media manager at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen logged on to fire off one of the more unhinged tweets to come from the corporate internet in at least 24 hours. “Popeyes is nothing without Black lives,” the company wrote, at once adding nothing to the conversation, not donating to any bail funds, and invoking a racist stereotype usually relegated to dumb guys with Thin Blue Line bumper stickers. The company deleted the tweet within minutes.
“We are nothing without Black lives,” Popeye’s tweeted in their revised statement. “There’s no room for injustice. We commit to strengthening every facet of our culture and policies to foster an environment where equality for Black people is a priority. We’ll use our platform to support this movement. #BlackLivesMatter.”
Last week, Target became a major concern among the hand-wringing pundit class, in part because, during the initial nights of protest, as police aggression boiled over into chaos, some businesses were looted, including a Minneapolis Target. In response, Target closed down or cut hours at nearly 200 stores nationwide.
On May 29, Target CEO Brian Cornell released a statement about the protests. Unlike much of the media coverage about the store, Cornell did not mention looting or engage in fear-mongering, acknowledging that “The murder of George Floyd has unleashed the pent-up pain of years, as have the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.” He told readers the company was working with their displaced workers, including those from the Minneapolis store, to ensure full pay and benefits in the coming weeks.
However, as Mónica Marie Zorilla reported in Adweek, the company’s Minneapolis location was not chosen by accident. Target’s relationship with local police dates back at least to 2004, when the company donated $300,000 to MPD to set up surveillance cameras across a 40-block radius in downtown Minneapolis. In 2011, they added a forensics crime lab to their campus in Minnesota to collect high-resolution images from their surveillance cameras, which are offered to local police at no cost.
The set up was not unique to Minneapolis. Target’s own website outlines its various partnerships with law enforcement agencies near their stores, including what was once called the “Law Enforcement Grant Program,” but has since been retitled “Public Safety-Focused Grants.”
On May 1, Target workers, alongside workers at Amazon, Walmart, Instacart, and other companies, staged a walkout to call attention to retailers’ failure to implement labor protections during the pandemic. Target said they had “introduced dozens of new measures” to keep workers healthy.” But a representative for Target Workers Union told CNBC that employees were forced to choose between their paycheck and their health.
On June 1, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman shared a statement he wrote on Reddit’s social media channels that read, in part, “As Snoos, we do not tolerate hate, racism, and violence, and while we have work to do to fight these on our platform, our values are clear.” Given that the site has played host to loads of racist, hateful content, the message was immediately criticized by former Reddit CEO Ellen K. Pao, who wrote, “I am obligated to call you out: You should have shut down the_donald instead of amplifying it and its hate, racism, and violence. So much of what is happening now lies at your feet. You don’t get to say BLM when reddit nurtures and monetizes white supremacy and hate all day long.”
On May 30, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell weighed in, writing: “The NFL family is greatly saddened by the tragic events across our country,” offering condolences to George Floyd’s family, as well as the families of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville police last week, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered by two white men while on a jog last month.
The irony of an organization that devolved into hysterics over Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful National Anthem protest, refused to sign him for another season, and ultimately settled his contract grievance accusing them of collusion, painting itself as an ally to social justice movements barely needs stating. But if you want, here’s Ava Duvernay stating it. It didn’t keep the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick’s former team, from weighing in as well. Should the NFL decide to be a mensch about this, they could follow Kaepernick’s lead and pay for protesters’ attorney fees.
If that weren’t enough, the Washington Redskins tweeted a black square Tuesday morning, echoing the widely despised social media campaign “Blackout Tuesday,” which Black organizers claimed drowned out useful information about protests. U.S. House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) responded, “Want to really stand for racial justice? Change your name.”
The day after hundreds of Facebook employees held a virtual “walkout” in protest of the company’s decision to bravely do nothing about the president’s posts calling protestors “THUGS” and condoning violence against them (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”), CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to Facebook to comment on the other protests, noting, “We all have the responsibility to create change.”
In the same message, Zuckerberg did commit to donating $10 million to “groups working on racial justice.” He did not specify which groups or when they could anticipate the money.
Goldman “Profited From The '07 Collapse By Short-Selling Subprime Mortgage-Backed Securities, And Then Found A Way To Profit Off Mortgage Relief By Foreclosing On Thousands Of Homes” Sachs also had something to say.
“I continue to hope that you and your families are faring well during these extraordinary times,” Goldman CEO David M. Solomon wrote in a voice message to shareholders titled, “My Message On Inclusion,” which he later published on LinkedIn. “I remain so grateful for what you’re all doing to collectively help Goldman Sachs navigate through this global pandemic.”
If you’re wondering what that has to do with anything, he gets to the point a few graphs down. “I am horrified by continued attacks against the black community,” Solomon wrote. “I want to remind each of you that as a community – there is no place at Goldman Sachs for racism or discrimination against any group in any form.”
On that note: when a Black Jewish woman filed a discrimination suit against them in 2017, she wrote, “Simply put, Goldman Sachs does virtually nothing to hire, promote or develop Black talent, instead focusing its efforts on retaining and promoting White employees to positions of leadership.”
Also, they did not donate any money.
On #BlackoutTuesday, the now ubiquitous video-calling platform Zoom tweeted their support for the movement, writing, “We know this post won’t fix the issues, but we want to make our stance clear. We are with you. #blackouttuesday.”
The same day, according to Bloomberg, the company’s CEO, Eric Yuan, announced he would not encrypt the company’s controversially hackable free calls, so they could work with law enforcement. “Free users,” Yuan said, “for sure we don’t want to give that, because we also want to work together with FBI, with local law enforcement in case some people use Zoom for a bad purpose.”
One Twitter user posted the tweets side-by-side. “Fuck the fuck off,” she explained.
Nextdoor, the app described as “the world’s largest social network for the neighborhood,” which has drawn endless complaints of racial profiling, tweeted, “Black lives matter. You are not alone. Everyone should feel safe in their neighborhood. Reach out. Listen. Take action.”
The viral video app posted a message on its platform and others from its CEO Kevin Mayer, stating: “Diversity is our strength. As a society, as an organization, as a platform. As I begin my work at TikTok, it has never been a more important time to support Black employees, users, creators, artists, and our broader community. I am making this commitment from today, my Day 1. Words can only go so far. I invite our community to hold us accountable for the actions we take over the coming weeks, months, and years.”
The message came alongside a longer apology from Vanessa Pappas, TikTok US general manager, and Kudzi Chikumbu, director of Creator Community, over concerns that the application censors Black users when they talk about racism.
Before the current protests even began, Black TikTok creators staged an online movement to “Black Out” the platform, by changing their profile pictures to Black Power fists to call attention to the app’s racist policies. It wasn’t the first time the app had been accused of discrimination. In March, The Intercept reported that TikTok moderators were told to suppress posts by “ugly” people and the poor.
Nike, which admitted to using child labor, was repeatedly criticized for operating sweatshops that paid below minimum wage, got caught up using shell companies to dodge taxes, and recently backed the Chinese government’s erosion of democracy in Hong Kong, honored the nationwide demonstrations against police violence with...an ad.
It is owned by the Murdochs.