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Living in a Pepsi Ad World

How corporate America has commodified the protest movements of the Trump era


In a commercial for Google’s smart-home subsidiary Nest, a teenage boy, dressed for prom night, prepares to board a limousine. Before he leaves, a paternal voice off camera gently commands the boy to treat his date with respect, reminding him that he is entitled to nothing. That voice, it’s soon revealed, belongs not to the girl’s father, but to the boy’s: It emanates from a curved, black audio device mounted in place of a doorbell as the father tele-parents from work via the Nest app. A text overlay appears, reading, “It starts at home.”

The ad, which occupied a coveted Academy Awards slot, is an obvious nod to the #MeToo movement—a concept surely familiar to the Oscar-viewing public in the wake of Hollywood’s recent sexual-assault reckoning. At first glance, there’s nothing remarkable about the commercial; it uses such standard marketing techniques as demographic targeting and imparts a general air of corporate goodwill. Yet beneath its putative message of male responsibility lies a more insidious phenomenon: The commodification of protest, particularly in the era of Trump.

This issue reached a fever pitch a year ago, when an infamous Pepsi commercial starring Kendall Jenner distilled the iconography of protests against police brutality into a collage of meaningless signs, dance moves, and amicable cops. Though it was an egregious example of corporate appropriation, the repercussions were mild and fleeting: Pepsi removed the ad, apologized, and moved on. Meanwhile, companies like Nest have continued to glom on to mainstream social movements, simply in more subtle forms.

Since, roughly, Trump’s inauguration, private enterprise has tapped into an American furor gone mainstream, leveraging marches into marketplaces. In 2017, New York magazine’s style vertical, The Cut, informed readers which scarves and leggings from Uniqlo, Amazon, and American Apparel they should tote at the Women’s March. Smaller companies, too, used it as an advertising platform: The CEO of cosmetics firm Glossier carried a sign to the same march proclaiming “We’re in it together” under the company’s signature “G,” and health-tech startup Tia offered free poster templates for download, its playful serif logo nestled in the corner. (The page appears to have been deactivated.) Cell carrier CREDO Mobile adopted the same tactic, branding intact, for last month’s March For Our Lives to protest gun violence.

If protesters are a market, it should come as no surprise that signs and posters designed for them aren’t just canvases for ads; they’re also for sale. Princeton Architectural Press, for instance, has published a series of ready-made signs:
Posters for Change, a collection of 50 removable posters running the gamut of causes of the #Resistance, from the abstract “Stay woke” to the more concrete, if nonspecific, “Fund the Arts.” The book exhorts prospective marchers to “Tear, Paste, Protest”—that is, after they fork over the requisite $25.

Media outlets reinforce this process of commercialization. Like clockwork, the likes of BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and Slate comb the crowds at the Women’s March, March For Our Lives, and other mass demonstrations, compiling the signs they deem the wittiest and pithiest of the bunch. Here, the protest sign transitions from an expression of conviction to something far more marketable—clickbait—plus bragging rights for whichever clever marcher happened to make the cut. This predated Trump: In 2011, New York consulted with a Madison Avenue ad executive to “grade” signs from the Occupy Wall Street movement on their “brand-building” potential.

As the Occupy report card suggests, the monetization of resistance didn’t begin with the ascendancy of Trump. Genevieve LeBaron and Peter Dauvergne examined how corporations like ExxonMobil and WalMart co-opt and neuter dissent in 2014’s
Protest Inc.: The Corporatization of Activism, starting with the year 2008, when the financial crisis awoke even the world’s wealthiest countries to their own precarity. In 2011, journalist Allison Kilkenny lamented the corporatization of Occupy Wall Street, citing such youth-capturing wangles as an MTV music award for “Most Memorable #OWS Performance” and the possibility of Occupy Wall Street-themed installments of MTV’s reality franchises The Real World and True Life.

Yet it’s worth considering the effect of the Trump presidency on this trend. Trump’s victory rattled a segment of the American population that, thanks to its own social and financial capital, had been complacent under the eight years of the Obama administration. As many have noted, Trump didn’t introduce America’s ugliness—its militarism, its feeble social-welfare programs, its rampant privatization of public goods, its latent and overt bigotries, to name a few—he merely amplified it. However, those with the wherewithal to think otherwise—that “America Is Already Great,” as the Democrats suggested in 2016—treated the current presidency as an affront on American values, a departure from Who We Are.

The members of this demographic—largely middle-class, white, self-described liberals—are, on the whole, new to protest. Historically, they’ve been shielded from America’s worst policies; after the election, however, they were thrust out of their institution-trusting comfort zone, forced to acknowledge the ills that, as subtext under Obama, became text under Trump. Previously unaccustomed to taking it to the streets, this group had suddenly arrived with pun-laden signs in tow. Accordingly, the Women’s March of 2017 generated record numbers, peppered with celebrities and food trucks. Protest had, again, entered the mainstream, its new core attendees equipped with money to burn—a fact of which “conscious” corporations became all too aware.

Relatedly, most mass movements, while aiming to counteract some of the horrors of the Trump administration, have been content to couch their messaging in broad, fuzzy terms. They lack many of the demands that lie at the heart of activist politics on the left, which are both granular in their specifics and sweeping in their call for holistic, systemic change. This is evident in criticism of the Women’s March for its racial exclusion; of the post-Weinstein #MeToo movement for its scant attention to class; and of the March For Our Lives for silencing the voices of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s black students.

In an absence of specific, structural critiques and demands—even if that absence is unconscious—corporations can more easily claim causes as their own. If, say, economic injustice isn’t clearly among the chief grievances of the Women’s March, it’s far easier for companies to shoehorn themselves in—to, as Pepsi so nebulously put it, “join the conversation.” These companies can then masquerade as champions of social justice, proclaiming a half-baked message of equality with no financial loss and plenty to gain.

It’s difficult to make prescriptions about acts of protest, especially in such fraught times. What shouldn’t be up for debate, though, is that effective, inclusive social movements are compromised when they become vehicles for corporate exploitation. The next time a protester at one of America’s post-2016 marches sees a business logo on a sign, an article prompting them to buy leggings, or a #woke commercial, it just might behoove them to ask what, and who, it’s all for.