Slogans are meaningless without action — why brands are getting it wrong on Black Lives Matter

ELLEN E JONES
PA

Amid everything that’s going on, you may have overlooked the struggles of cosmetics giant L’Oréal, dating app Grinder, YouTube and online clothing retailer Pretty Little Thing.

The news that all of them have had an absolute shocker on social media this week probably ranks low in the claims on your compassion. Somewhere below “white people needing reassurance after riskily posting a black square on Instagram”. But please; won’t someone think of the brands?

The big brands could just close their accounts (to listen), and open their coffers (to give), but in the age of social media, a statement must be made.

And so the Donald Trump Prize for Dumb Tweeting goes to the relative unknown Bristol Dry Gin. The West Country micro-distillery posted an image of their bottle stuffed with a rag, accompanied by the caption: “When the shooting starts the looting starts. Voted no.1 gin by rioters for its complex botanical mix and high flammability.”

Context-free quoting of a Sixties segregationists’ catchphrase, is it? Dismissing righteous Black Lives Matter protesters as “rioters”? And all while apparently displaying ignorance of your hometown’s history as a slaving port. A history which helped turn Bristol into exactly the kind of place where people will spend £40 on a bottle of spirits.

Ellen E Jones

Sadly it’s hardly unusual for marketing opportunities to be sought in misery. Take the Covid-19 pandemic, which has inspired a whole new advertising genre. Those badly-framed Zoom call ones, where a “real” employee delivers some variation on the same tagline: “In this difficult time for you and your family, we will allow you to continue buying our product.”

So thoughtful. There are important differences though.Coronavirus has people yearning for a return to “business-as-usual”. Black Lives Matter has confronted us with just how blinkered that yearning is.

And, in fairness to every floundering social media marketer, brands don’t operate in a vacuum, any more than people do. We all exist within the same white supremacist power structure which anti-racist activists are trying to dismantle, and we are all — to varying degrees — complicit.

Thus, however well meant a post by, say, Nike, the evidence of corporate hypocrisy is always there, and it’s only ever a matter of time before some of it shows up in the comments. (Like, say, the lack of any black people in Nike’s senior executive team.) There are ways to be better at this: institutions can be curious and open about their history — and, likely, present — of racism.

It might help if more people understood anti-black racism as, itself, a kind of centuries-long, global marketing campaign, perpetuated to launder the profits of slave trading and colonial looting. All this leads to the realisation that, perhaps, some kinds of human experience are just too profoundly devastating to be exploited for profit. But, really; since when did that stop anyone?

Get a taste of our blues

Clara Amfo introduced many to the name Amanda Seales, when she quoted her on Radio 1 this week. Seales, left, is known to Insecure fans as Issa’s friend Tiffany; she also has timely thoughts on how non-black celebrities can make their online solidarity more meaningful.

“Turn on the comments,” she advises, then take a dip in the racist sewer that materialises. “You use our rhythm, now come and get a taste of our blues.”