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Advertising and the power of consumer activism

In this guest blog, part of the Bad Publicity series, Dr Eleftheria Lekakis, Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications, School of Media, Arts and Humanities, University of Sussex draws on her latest book, Consumer Activism, to explore how consumption and resistance are intertwined. 

I don’t need to tell you we are surrounded by advertising. We are immersed in advertising. I don’t need to tell you that advertising is the most dominant form of communication. We employ media funded primarily by advertising to learn, work, and play. I can tell you what my research has brought to light, while studying the relationship between consumption and politics for the last fifteen years. Specifically, I want to raise three points from my book Consumer Activism to connect my study of resistance in promotional culture to the way in which advertising conditions our lives. 

Consumer activism

“I call it ‘consumer’ activism not because I want to centre or privilege ‘the consumer’, but in order to acknowledge and appraise the centrality and impact of consumer practices.”

Consumer Activism explores how consumption can be mobilised for nationalistic (racial/ethnic), gender (feminist/queer) and environmental (green/sustainable) causes, as well as its use by intermediaries such as celebrities and subvertisers. I argue that consumer activism deserves serious analysis across time and space, and in terms of its agents, technologies, and narratives of change. It can re-animate historical accounts, re-appraise contemporary phenomena, and reconfigure the power we hold as individuals and communities in addressing political concerns. I don’t want to celebrate consumer power, but I also don’t want to easily dismiss the collective agency of consumers.  

First, consumers tend to be celebrated or reprehended, and the same goes for consumer power. Consumer Activism expands the realm of resistance from individual choices to political practices in which consumers engage in the marketplace; these range from buying (‘buycotting’) or not buying (boycotting) products and services, as well as (online and offline) campaigning, practising minimalism or challenging advertising. 

What we typically identify as ‘consumer activism’ is individual choices in the marketplace, such as ethical consumerism. However, the book identifies a number of limitations in the treatment of politics through consumption as a politics of choice. This is particularly pertinent when thinking about green consumerism, or the paradox of trying to save the world through specific purchases while overall continuing to consume as usual. 

So, I argue that thinking about consumer activism as a set of practices is important to avoid its celebration or condemnation. I call it ‘consumer’ activism not because I want to centre or privilege ‘the consumer’, but in order to acknowledge and appraise the centrality and impact of consumer practices.

Examples of consumer activism in practise

Adfree Cities’ own project Adspotters, shows how focusing on advertising can connect citizens to resistance towards promotional culture.  

Stop Funding Hate and their list of ethical advertisers/ brands that don’t advertise on venues that allow hate speech

US-based Fair Play (previously Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood) that advocates for childhood without brands for instance via their Screen Free week campaign.

Promotional culture

Relatedly, a second point: critically reading and responding to advertising is key to redressing imbalances and injustices in our culture. Our culture, I underscore, is promotional. From work to play and from creation to consumption, we are looped in promotional communication. We use advertising platforms to communicate and we express ourselves through communication that often resembles advertising and is funded largely by advertising. And while the marketplace presents itself as a neutral ground where all opinions can be voiced, it is fertile ground for control and manipulation, particularly by those who enjoy what I call a ‘hierarchy of promotionalism’ where elites, celebrity influencers and corporations enjoy privileged attention in ushering particular brands of activism.

Particularly, the focus tends to be on global North agents and narratives, while stories of waste, for instance, remain obscure and invisible. Take the example of fast fashion, according to the European Environment Agency, the amount of used clothes exported from the EU has tripled in the last two decades. Yet, sustainability can become a brand-friendly buzzword. And while ‘greenwashing’ (vague or irrelevant corporate communication of environmental responsibility and justice) is a complex term, it is important to recognise it and call it out. 

At the same time it is important to increase the scope of policy making to make businesses accountable for their practices and to explore the impact of entire sectors. For example, if we look at smartphone production, while globally major key players (Apple, Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi) express their commitment towards sustainability, none are suggesting slowing down production, even when estimates are that greenhouse gases from computers, smartphones and data centres could grow from 1% of global emissions to over 14% in 2040 with the footprint of smartphones surpassing the individual contribution of desktops, laptops and displays. 

A poster on the London Underground for Boohoo fast fashion.
Ads for fast fashion companies like manipulate our choices whilst contributing to large amounts of waste.

Challenging advertising

“To make sense of practices of activism through consumption, it is essential to include practices that question advertising as a culture that promotes consumption.”

Finally, an obvious point: ‘We’ are not all equal in the sphere of the market. Consumers in the global North and in highly industrialised countries such as China have heavier environmental footprints than those in the global South. Within countries in the global North, severe economic inequalities made worse by the cost of living crisis leave consumers in search of affordability, not global labour justice. The platform economy and dominant players such as Amazon further enable this search for survival or abundance, while at the same time feeding the search for speedy deliveries. 

Changing our consumption practices at the individual level is not likely to curb financial, refugee or climate crises. Consumer Activism argues against narratives of ‘consumer activist solutionism’ that suggests that all political action can be mediated by the marketplace. Specifically focusing on nationalism in relation to race and ethnicity, gender in relation to feminism, and environmentalism, I present a plethora of perspectives to question the affordances and limitations of consumer activism as perceived across disciplines. 

In the book, I suggest that practices of consumer activism are mobilized across social justice struggles and can play important roles in raising awareness for causes, raising funds for social movements, as well as promoting more just and sustainable uses of the marketplace. Furthermore, including actions that target advertising in the category of consumer activism allows for a comprehensive conceptualization of consumer activism. To make sense of practices of activism through consumption, it is essential to include practices that question advertising as a culture that promotes consumption, such as the work of Adfree Cities.

The battle over meaning is also a battle for our futures. If advertising sells ‘wokeness’, ‘feminism’, and ‘sustainability’, what is the role of consumers beyond subscribers to that ideology? Their role is to remain critical of simplified solutions to social change.

This guest blog is part of the Bad Publicity series, in which academics in fields from public health to surveillance, degrowth and behaviour change explore the ways in which advertising intersects with pressing contemporary social and political issues.

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