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The Consumer Push for Corporate Activism

Social media users have pushed many companies into community activism

Woman holding sign at protest
The legal concept of corporate personhood has a very long history, but corporate personality is a fairly recent concept. Through social media, companies have been able to develop their own character to interact with consumers directly. Tony Deng, an assistant professor in the Public Relations and Advertising program, says, “Communication technology enables companies to enter social discourse and develop a personality and character people can interact with online.”

While consumers may feel greater feelings of affinity and loyalty with brands as a result of this dynamic, they also make greater demands, particularly when it comes to political issues. Thus, in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic and the killings of George Floyd and other people of color, companies have used advertising, email and social media messages to assert that “we’re all in this together” and that they are strong supporters of racial justice.

Tony Deng
Assistant Professor Tony Deng
“They are expected by the general public to take a stand because they are part of the community,” Deng says.

Of course, many companies have contributed to good causes over the years. “Nike had been doing this for decades,” Deng observes. That said, it may be surprising how little social responsibility advertising has actually occurred. According to Ads of the World, social responsibility ads, especially for COVID-19, numbered only 450 since March. Deng says that the average online user sees 5,000 ads every day.

In addition, media-savvy consumers will not believe everything they see. “Companies in this age of transparency cannot escape the consumers’ scrutiny in terms of how they react to these events. They really need to be authentic. So, companies that are just doing the minimum, like putting a black square on their Facebook profile and doing nothing else, are not going to be that welcome,” Deng says.

In response, the types of sloganeering commercials that ran at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis have given way to action-oriented messaging. Amazon, which was criticized for not adequately protecting its frontline workers, has been running ads featuring a variety of workers talking about how they are being safe while providing excellent customer service.

According to Deng, as society continues to wrestle with social issues, companies will continue to meet their customers’ expectations with advertising and public relations strategies to mirror the most relevant topics in the minds of consumers. “The focus will still be that the company cares about people—the consumers and the company’s employees—and we stand with you.”

Originally published in Conversations (Fall 2020).