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In This Time of Social Change, Can a Brand Also Be an Ally?

Major corporate food brands are tweeting #BlackLivesMatter, but that’s not the same as activism

Workers Across The Country Demonstrate For Higher Minimum Wage
McDonald’s restaurant workers walk off the job to demand higher wages and union rights in 2016.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

A symptom of brands sounding more and more like people is that we more frequently look to companies to mirror our ideologies. Coconut water is expected to clap back at people who pronounce a distaste for it on Twitter, it’s not surprising when Steak-Umm’s social media accounts rant about cognitive dissonance, or for Popeyes and Chick-fil-A to fight publicly and pettily about who has the better fried chicken sandwich. But, no matter how surreal it is to watch companies pivot their voice in the hopes of seeming more human, what remains is that, well, they’re not. Brands are not people, and few things demonstrate that stark contrast like brands responding to this generation’s civil rights uprising.

For the past two weeks, brands have released somber graphics and carefully workshopped statements referencing “systemic racism” across corporate social media accounts in response to protests sweeping the nation. Social media silence became complicity; not posting (or posting too flippantly) became seen as tantamount to siding with the machinations of white supremacy that have subjugated, killed, and marginalized Black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery for centuries.

In poured statements from streaming platforms, tech conglomerates, burger chains (hell, even Gushers). “Popeyes is nothing without Black lives,” the fried-chicken chain tweeted, before deleting the tweet and replacing it with one that references injustice and equality. “I will not pretend to understand the weight of the years of injustice and inequality that our Black friends and colleagues have experienced,” Taco Bell’s CEO Mark King wrote in an open letter. “when it comes to people’s lives, there’s only one way to have it. without discrimination,” tweeted Burger King in all lowercase, against all odds finding some way to shoehorn a reference to its slogan into its anti-discrimination messaging.

And then there was Ben & Jerry’s, which threw down a Cherry Garcia-flavored gauntlet with the decisive proclamation, “We must dismantle white supremacy.” On its blog, the company wrote, “What happened to George Floyd was not the result of a bad apple; it was the predictable consequence of a racist and prejudiced system and culture that has treated Black bodies as the enemy from the beginning.” Four calls to action — oriented around policy and lawmakers — follow. As Rob Walker wrote for Marker, it reads more like “a full-throated manifesto from an activist group” than anything you might expect from an ice cream maker.

Reactions to Ben & Jerry’s statement were overwhelmingly laudatory in the news and on social media. The brand’s posts racked up 29,000 likes on Facebook and 319,000 on Twitter. Fans called it “the only corporate messaging worth reading” and “true corporate responsibility,” welcoming the brand as “REAL allies” and pointing to its values-driven mission, track record — dating back years — speaking out about Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform, and the progressive politics and civic engagement of co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (who sold the company to multinational conglomerate Unilever in 2000, but remain closely associated with the brand in consumers’ minds).

Compare that warm reception to the response that McDonald’s received for its message, which names Black victims of police and racist violence and includes the promise of a donation to the National Urban League and the NAACP. “Do Black lives matter when they work in your restaurants?” the ACLU tweeted. “You are not ‘one of us,’” the workers’ movement Fight for $15 wrote, accusing the fast-food giant of “a culture of white supremacy. There is no such thing as good, moral corporations, for they are inherently driven by profit. But as New York Times critic Tejal Rao points out, fast food — which “runs on cheap food and cheap labor” — requires a particular “suspension of disbelief from the viewer,” one which involves overlooking a troubled history of racism, putting profits ahead of workers’ safety, ignoring sexual harassment, and fighting unionization efforts that would help Black and other workers of color. No matter how often such businesses tweet “BlackLivesMatter” or post a well-designed graphic, you’ll be hard pressed to find one so readily willing to betray its own reason for existence: to extract labor and natural resources as cheaply as possible, to earn as much as possible, in an unjust and inequitable system (hello, capitalism) that rewards that kind of “entrepreneurship.”

So what should the public demand of these companies in times like this? To “open your purse,” for one, as Terry Nguyen writes for The Goods. Indeed, some food brands have dipped into their coffers these past two weeks: Chipotle announced a donation of $1 million to the National Urban League, Starbucks $1 million to organizations nominated by employees (while also banning employees from wearing anything in support of Black Lives Matter), Wendy’s $500,000 to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. It’s mere pocket change, compared to these brands’ tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, but still preferable to empty platitudes. But if food brands really wanted to stand for change, they would provide living wages, benefits, healthcare; they would protect their workers and their rights; they would allow dissent and unions; they would fight for sustainability, environmental justice, immigration reform. It would mean ceasing the millions spent lobbying and influencing policymakers to protect companies from having to do those things.

In other words, it would require dismantling everything that allows many of these brands to exist and profit the way they have for decades. No amount of social media solidarity or one-off acts of philanthropy can change that.