Corporations Are Working With Social Media Influencers to Cancel-Proof Their Racial Justice Initiatives
Tracy Jan, Washington Post, March 30, 2021
Over close-up shots of a pale, freckled back, then a single blue eye, these words appeared: “Being White in America is not needing to state your life matters. And when your life matters, you have power. Now is the time to use it.”
The call to action on prime-time television from one of the world’s largest advertisers was risky.
Advocating for racial allyship is not something corporate America has traditionally embraced. But the multiracial protests against police brutality last year prompted many companies to examine their role in combating systemic racism and pushing White Americans to reflect on their understanding of race and privilege — all while trying to increase market share. With every new well-meaning — or opportunistic, depending on the details — effort comes the potential for public and painful missteps.
“We sell Tide,” said Damon Jones, a Procter & Gamble spokesman who leads the company’s racial justice initiatives. “We don’t ever want anyone to be upset at Tide.”
So Procter & Gamble sought outside help to navigate this era of racial justice protests. It joined a growing number of companies consulting diverse panels of “real people” with cultural expertise — community leaders, activists and academics — on everything from ad campaigns to whether to celebrate Black History Month, according to Joshua DuBois, chief executive of Gauge, a technology company connecting corporations with a vast network of social media influencers.
“Traditional market research is not built for this cultural moment,” DuBois said. He and co-founders Brandon Andrews and Alfred Dunn recently launched a “cultural navigator” platform called NXTLAB of more than 10,000 opinion-makers whom companies can tap confidentially for candid feedback to spare themselves possible embarrassment.
Their expertise covers multigenerational, multiracial perspectives on racial equality as well as LGBTQ, gender and women’s rights. Among the platform’s thought leaders: April Reign, who launched the #OscarsSoWhite campaign for more diverse representation in Hollywood; Jamilah Lemieux, a millennial writer focused on race and gender; and David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization focused on Black LGBTQ people.
The influencers are paid between $500 and more than $1,500 for one-on-one consultations and $10 to $100 for survey responses, DuBois said. Gauge charges companies a subscription fee (starting at $5,000 a month for nonprofit groups) that includes daily emails encapsulating key news developments, access to a website featuring experts weighing in on those moments, and a set number of custom research projects.
The goal, DuBois said, is an “equitable economy for cultural understanding” where leaders of color are paid for helping brands avoid major mistakes in their ad campaigns, corporate policies, diversity and inclusion plans, philanthropy and product launches.
No company wants to be canceled, even temporarily. Take Pepsi, whose tone-deaf 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner strutting through a protest to deliver a can of soda to a police officer drew consumer backlash and was pulled. Or Starbucks, whose short-lived 2015 campaign for baristas to scrawl “Race Together” on millions of coffee cups in hopes of sparking conversations about racial tensions was criticized as insincere corporatism.
Each marketing misfire provokes a cycle of consumer outrage and calls to boycott, followed by corporate apologies and promises to do better. Instead of being dragged on social media by influencers with large numbers of followers, DuBois said companies can engage them well ahead of any campaign launch.
“These are the people who make good or bad ideas trend, shaping the culture every day,” DuBois said. “It would be a market failure to not tap into this wisdom.”
International makeup chain Sephora convened the NXTLAB network to guide a study on racial bias in retail, and implemented sweeping changes in January to reduce discriminatory practices in its stores and diversify its product lines. Tech company Snap tapped the network to think more deeply about how to develop inclusive augmented reality tools.
They’ve helped corporations featuring Black models and actors in ad campaigns to also consider diversity in size and skin tone. They’ve advised companies on how to show up — even virtually — at events such as last summer’s March on Washington honoring the 57th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address at the Lincoln Memorial. And they’ve recommended against using the word “Confederate” in television show titles.
In 2017, Procter & Gamble received more than 10,000 letters and phone calls, the most “hate mail” the company says it’s ever received, accusing the company of “race baiting” after it released a spot featuring Black mothers directly addressing the racism their children face in American life.
“‘The Talk’ was the first controversial campaign that we did, designed to get people talking about racial bias — bias that exists within the walls of P&G, within the advertising industry, within a lot of different places,” Jones said. “Frankly, when we saw the reaction, we knew we needed to continue that discussion.”
So executives forged ahead with another racially provocative campaign titled “The Look” in 2019.
This time, though, it sought feedback from influencers that Gauge had tapped early on in a beta version of the platform before launching this spring. The racially diverse group helped P&G adjust the intensity of the actors’ facial expressions and emotions. The result: a more subtle film depicting the daily microaggressions experienced by Black men — no matter how accomplished. No words. Just telling glances.
Promoting community discussions and encouraging White Americans to fight for racial justice seems far afield for a company that sells toilet paper, toothpaste and tampons. But for many companies, pressure came from consumers as well as their own employees — and ultimately, they say, standing up for racial justice can help increase their bottom line.
Black and Hispanic consumers are more likely now to expect brands to take a stance on social justice issues, according to a 2020 Nielsen report. The market research firm has also reported that Black shoppers typically spend more on cosmetics, hair products and skin care than White consumers, amounting to more than $1 billion each year. And Black consumers are more likely than other demographic groups to speak up through social media.
“There is an economic benefit as well as a societal benefit,” Jones said. “When you get this stuff right, it’s good for business.”