To say that I am the first to argue that consumer-goods-based corporations are soulless, greedy, and exploitative entities would be an ignorant and highly self-important claim. This ethos was the central theme of the first round of culture wars that exploded in the 1990s; American workers had grown tired of the gross corporate indulgence of the eighties and wasted no time in disseminating the idea that the suits in New York City were subsidiaries of the devil.
This ‘screw the man’ ideology has remained prevalent in the discourse surrounding the American corporate landscape — but those suits have caught on to the criticism and have successfully managed to wield it to their own benefit. Instead of advertising firms carefully crafting the most visually appealing advertisements or evoking the fiscal trappings of subliminal messaging, they now collaborate to create the most “woke” campaigns possible.
Activism is no longer limited to scrupulous people with legitimate causes; it’s a big business. The pandemic marked a major shift in the cultural paradigm, which has come in the form of self-aggrandizing pseudo-activism predominantly perpetuated by none other than the institutions causing the oppression.
Victoria’s Secret is the perfect example of a corporation exploiting the social awareness of its consumer base to its own benefit. In 2018, the former chief marketing executive of the lingerie leviathan conducted an infamous interview with Vogue where he claimed that the brand would never showcase plus-sized or transgender models on its runway.
A week later, as a result of public outcry regarding the heinous comments, Victoria’s Secret stock was down 39%, and the CEO had resigned. Allegations about executive members’ ties to Jeffery Epstein circulated the media. The corporation and its investors were in dire straits; consumers were no longer interested in supporting a company whose values were so misaligned with their own.
This left remaining top-level executives — most of whom remained unchanged throughout the slew of scandals — no other choice than to conform to the social justice reckoning that began in 2019. The brand launched a multimillion-dollar campaign called #VSCollective, where they selected various activists and universally adored public figures to endorse the brand’s commitment to uplifting and representing all women and all bodies. Their stock has since recovered to similar rates pre-scandal.
You are more than welcome to draw your own conclusions from Victoria’s Secret’s desperate attempt at rebranding. Still, I find it difficult to reconcile that every VS investor, executive, and board member had a sudden come-to-Jesus moment about body positivity and inclusivity.
Advertising is not the only arena in which corporations have wielded social justice movements for monetary gain: merchandising of the progressive movement has opened up a brand-new revenue stream that corporate entities have been eager to capitalize on. Do you want to signal your feminist beliefs with a cheeky graphic t-shirt? Look no further than Amazon Basics, where you can have a tank top embroidered with the phrase The Future Is Female delivered to you in 2-3 business days! Pay it no mind that Amazon’s senior leadership team has 19 men and three women; you get your product and the opportunity to showcase your commitment to progressivism, and they get their revenue. An ingenious business model if you ask me.
Corporations and others in the business of activism have attempted to cover up this cognitive dissonance under the guidance that representation in advertising matters. Still, I wonder, why do mega-corporations, which we have universally agreed to be devoid of ethics, dictate what is socially moral? Why do we applaud their vapid grasps at relevance and culture capital? Isn’t the most important instrument of social change the mind of the individual?