On its face, it was a simple message of solidarity and support. In white text over a black background, L’Oreal Paris posted to Instagram, “Speaking out is worth it,” as well as a blank black square. Along with millions of people a year ago today, the global cosmetics giant was participating in #BlackoutTuesday, in which users filled social feeds with black squares as a sign of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
The pretext was about speaking up against racism. But for many of the more than 950 brands that posted a black square, it amounted to an empty gesture. Critics quickly pointed out that some of the companies that posted black squares had lousy track records of their own. Take model Munroe Bergdorf, who had been fired by L’Oréal Paris as a spokesperson in 2017 after speaking out about unconscious racism in the wake of the Charlottesville protests and white supremacy marches.
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In a later-deleted Instagram post, Bergdorf wrote, “you dropped me from a campaign in 2017 and threw me to the wolves for speaking out about racism and white supremacy. With no duty of care, without a second thought.”
In the year since #BlackoutTuesday, that disconnect between what brands say and what brands do has only become more glaringly obvious, making the empty black square shorthand for empty brand and corporate gestures.
The origins of #BlackoutTuesday
Music executives originally created #BlackoutTuesday as a call for the music industry to pause its business for a day of reflection and solidarity. It joined two hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, #TheShowMustBePaused and #BlackLivesMatter and quickly spread to celebrities, brands, and everyone else. Companies and organizations that joined in ranged from the San Francisco 49ers, the last team Colin Kaepernick played for before being blackballed by the NFL, to Amazon, which is currently being sued for discrimination against Black and female employees.
At the time, the first reaction of Marcus Collins, a University of Michigan marketing professor and head of strategy at Wieden+Kennedy New York, was: Great what’s next? “Ultimately, if you rewind four years earlier with Michael Brown and when Black Lives Matter first emerged, brands were very quiet,” Collins says. “They said nothing. Did nothing. For four years later to at least acknowledge it, that’s a step forward. Then the question becomes what’s the next step? That’s where scrutiny comes in.”
The scrutiny was swift. Instagram handle @show_the_boardroom published the racial identities of board members of major companies like EA Games, P&G, Walmart, JPMorgan Chase, and Netflix. The results were largely white. Travel brands were called out for not including people of color in marketing and advertising.
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On June 3, Uoma Beauty founder Sharon Chuter launched the #PullUporShutUp challenge, asking brands to make their diversity numbers public. This past March, Chuter told Nylon that it had sparked conversation in the beauty industry. “Whether companies were involved with Pull Up or not, they were all shaken by it,” Chuter said. “It inspired consumers to realize they can enact change, and for the employees within those companies to really find a voice and hold the companies responsible.”
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Brands follow the heat
So why did so many brands participate in #BlackoutTuesday if they couldn’t back it up? The instinct for brands to join in was understandable and entirely predictable given how #BlackoutTuesday hit critical mass in culture, says Chuck Welch, cofounder and chief strategy officer at Brooklyn-based Rupture Studio, a Black-owned brand strategy consultancy that works with brands such as Pepsi, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and Nike. “Brands are oftentimes like the ambulance, they follow the heat, the energy, whether things are positive or negative,” Welch says. “We’re in a culture where (brands) are compelled to speak up even if they don’t want to.”
For years the most common rule of thumb for brands on social media has been to participate as often and as enthusiastically as possible. That’s how brands control their own narrative. We see this as brands increasingly insert themselves in cultural discussions, whether around the Super Bowl, last night’s NBA playoff games, the Oscars, or whatever meme is getting people’s attention this hour.
But that dynamic becomes more complicated when the discourse shifts from pop culture to societal issues like racism and voting rights. “I understand the knee-jerk reaction because that is the mindset,” Welch says. “Working with corporations and brands, you understand nothing gets done fast. There are a million voices in the room. So to come up with a program takes time, a lot of buy-in and alignment across a lot of different functions of the organization, from PR to HR, DEI to checking in with Black ERGs (employee resource groups). I’m not saying it’s right, but I understand that gesture of the black box.”
A distillation of a bigger problem
VMLY&R executive creative director Walter Geer says #BlackoutTuesday was simply a distillation of a larger issue, where brands create an image that the company can’t back up. “You can’t say one thing and do another,” Geer says. “If you look at all the commercials for brands making a play on diversity, I guarantee you that 9 out of 10 of them, if you look behind the camera, won’t have a single Black person there. You need to fix your own house before you talk about something externally.”
This is where many brands misfired last year, by speaking out on an issue without at the very same time acknowledging their own struggles or efforts in that space. “For any brand that gets involved in an issue or cause, they need to know that empty statements will not suffice,” Collins says. “This isn’t binary though, and too often it’s treated as such. You’re either hot or cold. But most are lukewarm, which on issues like this is acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers.”
L’Oreal, for example, quickly reconciled with Bergdorf after the model called them out, with L’Oréal Paris president Delphine Viguier-Hovasse reaching out directly to express regret at how the situation was handled years before. Bergdorf then accepted a consultancy position on the company’s U.K. Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board.
However, several major brands posted a black square then behaved in a way that appears to contradict their stated intentions. Activists have been calling on companies like Ford, Target, Google, and Bank of America, which have pledged to support voting rights, to cut ties with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for its opposition to the For The People Act, which fights voting rights restrictions being introduced in several states.
5. Other companies that we know are funding a lobbying effort against federal legislation to protect voting rights via the @USChamber include:@salesforce @AmericanAir @BankofAmerica @Microsoft @Disney @PepsiCo @JNJNews @ford@Target @Facebook https://t.co/6XeXmjcBDg
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) June 2, 2021
So really . . . what’s next?
Last year, brands and companies, whether they faced a backlash at the moment or not, made a host of commitments, from hiring and promoting more Black talent, to spending billions on equity in banking, housing, funding small business, and more. Now they need to start speaking up on the progress being made or risk making those black squares even emptier.
“This is how trust is established,” says Collins. “We trust when actions and words are aligned. No one expects perfection. We know this is a progression, these things take time, but you have to acknowledge that.”
For that to happen, Welch says companies should look inward, to their own Black employees. “Let your people speak,” he says. “Oftentimes those people are dealing with the tension, anxiety, and fear like everyone else. Get your PR people out of the way and have an open and honest conversation. Pass the mic, man.”