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Brands have something to say about racism. Why does it all look the same?

How a black background with white letters became the new default aesthetic for corporate support as marketing—and why it falls short.

Brands have something to say about racism. Why does it all look the same?
[Photo: AndreyPopov/iStock]
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It all began on Friday when Nike flipped the script on its iconic tagline with a message directly addressing the protests in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd that inflamed issues of systemic racial inequality and police brutality.

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The bold statement in white letters over a dark or black background here is consistent with past Nike efforts around social issues, like 2017’s “Equality” spot or 2019’s “Never Stop Winning” in support of the U.S. women’s national soccer team and gender equality. And of course, it echoes Nike’s most famous and relevant social statement, its 2018 post featuring Colin Kaepernick and the line, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” This anti-racism spot is all that, mixed with the gravitas and calculated text reveal that we’ve seen, for example, in the award-winning “The Truth Is . . . ” campaigns from the New York Times.

The Nike effort was mostly praised (and widely covered by national media) both for its acknowledgement of the situation and its relative speed in doing so, especially as a company so connected to black American culture.

That was Saturday.

By Sunday, Nike’s style appeared to have gone from inspiration to template. Now every brand needed you to know it also was upset—and the only way to convey the seriousness with which they believed that racism is bad was with white type on a black background. CBS. The NFL. Adidas. Under Armour. Disney. Tik Tok. PlayStation. Salesforce. Target. Amazon.

And on and on.

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Suddenly our social feeds were black and white—and branded.

Visually, it’s meant as a stark interruption. Forget those shoes or that dress or that meme for a minute. We interrupt your regularly programmed Instagram post aimed at evoking consumer desire to elicit a different kind of consumer response with our solemn corporate statement of solidarity.

Unfortunately, the reality of the groupthink, even if backed by the best of intentions, transformed these messages into homogenous—and largely meaningless—wallpaper.

Branded thoughts and prayers that all blended together into one undifferentiated mass.

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Numb, yet?

Brands have long been trying to claw and scratch their way into the culture, ever fearful that if they fail to do so they might not be as relevant and “part of the conversation” as they hope to be.

But this isn’t a conversation that most brands are prepared—or welcome—to join. Many companies issuing these feel-good statements are ill-equipped to reckon with their own behavior, whether that’s Amazon or even Saturday Night Live. Activist Munroe Bergdorf called out L’Oreal Paris over the hypocrisy of issuing one of these statements after firing her for voicing her opinions on racism and white privilege last year.

Many marketers, particularly those that would rather not say anything, want to say just enough to get some credit for being on the right side of history but not so much as to draw too much attention.

In that sense, the white type on the black background becomes the perfect form letter to fill with a vague bromide.

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There’s a reason that this format has already been spoofed. Whether it’s “Never Forget” or “Boston Strong” or even climate change, we are now expecting to be inundated with empty words from all the brands in our lives. If you happen to be one of the few brands that actually cares and wants to make a positive impact, this is a problem. Their words are being drowned out by all the meaningless noise, making it even tougher to be heard.

It also points to just how quickly the culture is moving, especially as the chaos around first the pandemic and now these protests has everyone in a seemingly constant state of doomscrolling.

A couple of months ago, it took at least a few days for the jokes to start about all the “We’re in this together” emails from that dog food you bought that one time two years ago. It took a few weeks before all the pandemic ads rolled out and were rightly lampooned for their near universal commitment to soft piano music and stock video footage of empty playgrounds and parking lots.

The corporate response to the mass protests against police murders crossed over into parody in 36 hours.

The only real impact comes when words are backed by real action. ViacomCBS, for example, halted programming Monday across its entertainment and youth brands (MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, Paramount Network, BET, Pop TV, CMT, VH1, Logo, and Smithsonian) and CBS Sports for eight minutes and 46 seconds to protest the George Floyd’s murder, but also partnered with with Color of Change asking viewers to demand an end to “broken windows” policing, add legitimate civilian oversight boards with full investigatory power, and reduce police budgets, among other things.

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The lesson from Viacom’s response further confirms the idea that brands—and the marketers communicating on their behalf—have to fight the natural corporate instinct to avoid risk. It also crystallizes the basic rules of effective brand behavior, even in the best of times, which ultimately comes down to knowing who you are, where you stand, and acting accordingly.

“It’s the thought that counts” just isn’t enough. Thoughts and prayers to the brands who don’t get it.

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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