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Avoiding Exploitation: Marketing with Proactive Empathy Amidst the George Floyd Protests

Following the tragic killing of George Floyd — and the subsequent protests taking place across the United States and abroad — the world has seen a passionate and dedicated call for police reform and systemic change. Police de-escalation measures to this point have, at times, grown shockingly violent — with protesters, bystanders, and media figures among the injured — and footage of these moments has only underlined the need for change.


As a result of these developments, brands large and small have felt obligated to release statements and, in some cases, implement these reflections into their ad messaging. While some of these ads are good-natured, many have missed the mark due to the use of indirect language surrounding the protests’ broader implications. This has not only led to benign phrasing, it has also reflected a lack of empathy and understanding amidst consumers, who are inclined to assume these brands are exploiting tragedy for corporate gain.


For marketing teams, these moments require careful consideration and perspective; otherwise, their actions run the risk of undermining the progress they claim to foster.


Breaking away from perpetuity

In times of tragedy, it can be easy for brands to misconstrue compassion with mere presence — especially in the digital sector. The rapid-fire nature of social media has created a quick reactionary environment during these moments, and brands have become increasingly aware of this fact, utilizing it as a new framework for response.


However, in many cases — and especially within the context of the Floyd protests — it remains unclear what some of these brands have to offer in announcing where they stand. As the Atlantic observes, “(the) template that brands use to respond to a national crisis has become standard in recent years, as people experience collective trauma on the internet in real time. Images of police violence, school shootings, or racist attacks appear on the same social-media platforms where companies sell mascaras or sneakers or delivery services, often side by side. Contemporary marketing theory implores brands to show up where people naturally congregate online and engage with the topics they care about.”


While this approach makes sense in theory, it is also a quick path to perpetual nonaction and misplaced messaging. Brand presence in these broader conversations can be helpful when properly executed, but as has been observed in the last week, it can also create a slippery slope towards the enduring commodification of racial strife and civil rights activism. Rather than succumb to this vicious cycle, today’s brands must understand that simply calling for change is no longer enough.


Focusing on action

Perhaps the biggest weakness observed in protest-related ads is a general lack of action. Many of these ads claim to be dedicated to systemic change, but few of them clearly lay out plans to contribute to such change, opting instead to emphasize well-intentioned, but vague declarations of unity. Some chalk this toothless phrasing up to a fear of alienating parts of their consumer base, illustrating a disappointing conflict between morality and maximized profit.


That said, new studies show that the majority of modern consumers are hardly interested in empty verbiage; rather, they value brands that pair their press releases with contributions and actions toward broader positive shifts. These metrics prove that empathetic, proactive marketing has become the stronger avenue in terms of brand engagement, leading to the type of brand-community symbiosis that so many companies have reached for to no avail.


Ultimately, the above boils down to an increased need for brand self-awareness. These entities reserve a fair amount of power towards necessary change, but without action and proper perspective, this influence will remain tepid at best.


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