It had all the trappings of a tastefully supportive message.
On Sunday afternoon, Amazon followed the new brand blueprint of white text on a black background and tweeted out: “The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop. Together we stand in solidarity with the Black community—our employees, customers, and partners—in the fight against systemic racism and injustice.”
— Amazon (@amazon) May 31, 2020
It also arrived about a month after Amazon fired Staten Island warehouse worker Christian Smalls, who is an African American, for protesting over coronavirus health concerns at its facility, complete with PR plans to smear him using racially coded language as a strategy to fight union organizing.
Speaking of Amazon’s warehouses and health concerns, the company also preempted its shareholder meeting last week by sending TV stations a video news release that looks like a news story, claiming it is spending billions of dollars to keep workers safe, and many broadcasters ran all or parts of it without telling viewers where it actually came from.
There’s also the matter of the company’s secretive deals with more than 400 police departments, through its home security brand Ring. The company’s doorbells and cameras give law enforcement officials access to a portal where they can ask owners to provide footage that may be relevant to criminal investigations. In a September 2019 letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, U.S. Senator Edward Markey wrote that the partnerships “could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities.”
Meanwhile, the world’s most valuable company boasts zero top executives who are black, and Starbucks COO Rosalind Brewer is the single black member of its 10-person board of directors.
Funny coming from the company that fired a Black man for asking for safer working conditions during COVID, sells Nazi flags and remains the last large advertiser on Breitbart, which once featured a “Black Crime” section, despite being asked to stop by 600+ of your diverse workers
— Sleeping Giants (@slpng_giants) May 31, 2020
So we have one very carefully worded tweet versus a litany of actions that don’t exactly scream “solidarity.”
In Amazon’s rush to express empathy and convey some vague notion of action, the company only shines a brighter spotlight on the gaping hole between these sentiments and its actual behavior. Whether brand cult hubris or PR spin, the company is betting that its words here can and will overwhelm the facts.
In this, alas, they’re far from alone.
— CBS (@CBS) May 31, 2020
Broadcasters and entertainment companies also spoke out, despite the collective effect of decades of police and law enforcement procedurals that has sold a vision of a crime-ridden society and the heroics of law enforcement, even as crime rates have consistently dropped. In January, nonprofit Color of Change released a report that found Netflix, NBC, and ABC crime dramas were the top offenders for depicting wrongful actions committed by people of color in the criminal justice world, while 81% of showrunners were white men, and at least 78% of writers were white.
“What this report really roots us in is, how do you get Trumpism? You get that by miseducating a public and normalizing injustice—making things that are untrue seem true,” Color of Change president Rashad Robinson told Variety. “For the last 20 years in this country, violent crime has steadily gone down and, at the same time, people think violent crime has gone up. And that distance between perception and reality is not just about getting a wrong answer on ‘Jeopardy!’ It has real-world impact on people’s lives. When we miseducate people about how systems work and when we normalize injustice on our TVs, we make it OK for certain people to be treated only as heroes and certain people to be treated only as villains, and that does not move us forward.”
To be silent is to be complicit.
Black lives matter.
We have a platform, and we have a duty to our Black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up.
— Netflix (@netflix) May 30, 2020
As I’ve written before, the gap between a brand’s advertising and a company’s actions has been narrowing for years.
Just as the COVID-19 pandemic also illustrated this universal truth for brands, sentiment is empty unless is it’s backed up by real, concrete action. Otherwise, you’re just Drax eating Zarg Nuts thinking you’re invisible.
Before brands think about what they can say to comfort employees, customers, and partners right now, they need to take a good, long look in the mirror and be prepared to acknowledge their shortcomings.
Instead of crafting a tweet, outline a strategy to make a meaningful contribution to that comfort beyond white words on a black background.