Social Activism and its Effect on Corporate Behavior

Janelle Gilbert-Darius is a Professor of Psychology, specializing in Industrial Organizational Psychology at California State University, San Bernardino. She is also serving as California State University, San Bernardino’s General Education Director. We asked her a series of questions relating to social activism and its relation to advertising as well as social media’s influence on both. Dr. Gilbert-Darius was well equipped to speak on these matters due to her experience addressing these issues within her Psychology studies. She was able to provide a unique insight into individual’s as well as organization’s behaviors within social and political movements and their relation to marketing.

Figure 1: Interview with Dr. Janelle Gilbert-Darius over individual and corporate involvement within political/social movements and their impact on marketing. Interview conducted via Zoom (2020).

While our thesis focuses on corporate’s relationship with current social movements, Dr. Gilbert-Darius offers very thoughtful insights from the Human Resources/Recruiting side of the corporate world regarding the changes with diversity issues. In the interview, she made it very clear that the issues that have been creating social tension the past few years were not anything new. “These aren’t crimes that are new to us. Just the volume of them has changed.” – Dr. Gilbert-Darius claimed these crimes have historic trends to them. 

Figure 2: Percentage of U.S. Adults who believe it’s important for companies to publicly address political/social issues. Graph published to statista (2020).

According to Dr. Gilbert-Darius, organizational involvement within movements and on social media has its pros and cons. While it is important to have messages be spread and go viral, it’s also important not to reach certain levels of “sensationalism”. As Dr. Gilbert-Darius put it, “you see some headlines and they’re designed to make people click, and when you get into the details of it –  it may not be what it was suggesting.” She brought forth the possible concept of media companies prioritizing clicks and views by using irresponsible headlines to intentionally structure conversations. Although there might be more awareness now of social issues, she claims “we are not seeing those positive places as much where people are making a difference where we have some solutions.” 

Dr. Gilbert-Darius highlighted that even if something occurred within a movement that can be seen as largely negative, there may still be positives. While the organizations themselves might not necessarily care about particular movements, it’s safe to say that at least some of their work force and customers do. Organizations are now forced to be more aware of their employee population and needs. The Human Resources/Recruiters are also forced to embrace the impact these social issues bring about, and create the diverse environment needed within the company. So even if the company’s involvement might be superficial and purely motivated by money, at the very least it can inspire future generations to be more compassionate and be more tolerant of others. 

Dr. Gilbert-Darius brought up different types of volunteerism that existed in the past, comparing them to modern trends such as “slacktivism”. “Slacktivism” is the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment. Dr. Gilbert-Darius credits the rise of “slacktivism” and “cancel culture” to the introduction of social media into mainstream culture. “The issue is that in liking something, thumbs upping something, taking a few minutes to type for something into your social media is very different from the type of volunteerism we had prior to social media – where to get the words out you really had to be part of a community.” The effort it requires is completely different than before because making a political or social statement is just one like away. She also brings up how Covid has influenced this growing shift towards social activism through social media. 

While “cancel culture” continues to be a rising trend that doesn’t seem to die down anytime soon, more and more people are beginning to question this particular method of online social activism. Dr. Gilbert-Darius shared a similar view to many that online social activism is not enough; or to put simply, it lacks the “social” –– not in the sense that everyone has to be on the street, shoulder to shoulder chanting and expressing themselves in the middle of a global pandemic, but in the sense that no systematic change was made. She believes that strictly online-only movements lack depth and understanding since it is too easy to express personal values without any hands-on support. There are superficial components to it, much closer to the definition of participating in a viral trend than awareness of social issues. 

In conclusion, Dr. Gilbert-Darius believes that organizations need to have a wider range of empathy for their employees if they want to continue moving forward through this trying time. They need to be active participants within social change for social change to be considered authentic. That behavior needs to extend to every part of an organization, from advertising all the way to recruitment. The next question is, can organizations control political conversations? That will need to be broader conversations for us to have.

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