Saturday, March 24, 2012

Pinterest, Intention, and Making a Difference: Complications in Social Media Activism

In case you missed it, Belvedere Vodka decided it would be a good idea to tweet this ad and post it on their Facebook page:

As should be obvious, it was not a good idea, and several people immediately called them out on it. They tried to pull the ad down as fast as possible, but not fast enough in our highly digital world, and the screenshots people took began circulating immediately. 

Then, social media activism took off. 

People took to Belvedere Vodka's Facebook page to tell them what they thought of the ad, but many of those posts were deleted. People on Twitter criticized the ad harshly. 

Belvedere reacted to the backlash by posting a pseudo apology on Twitter and Facebook, saying they were sorry that people were offended, which is worlds away from admitting that they did anything offensive and sounded a lot like the people who were defending the ad by telling us complainers to "get a sense of humor" and "find something better to do." 

People used the comments on that "apology" to continue voicing their disapproval on Facebook, though it also devolved pretty quickly into some bickering among the commenters. 

Then, today Belvedere's president made a more substantial apology and bolstered it with a donation to RAINN

This is about the best possible outcome I can think of from this fallout. Yes, of course, I wish the ad had never been promoted in the first place. In fact, I wish very much that we lived in a world where the mere thought of joking about rape would be so appalling that no one would think to create this ad in the first place. In fact (while we're getting all best-case-scenario here), I wish that we lived in a world where there was no rape, and that would make the very premise of this advertisement moot. But, considering that we live in a world where rape is often promoted and glamorized or ignored and dismissed in popular media, ads like this one are going to be happen. When they do, we have a right (and I'd say a responsibility) to call the companies out, to tell them it is unacceptable, and to spend our dollars elsewhere. 

With that reality in mind, a substantial apology, a look into future advertising practices, and a donation to a sexual violence support group is definitely a step in the right direction. And it wouldn't have happened without the collective outrage harnessed and demonstrated through social media. 

Yesterday, Ms. Magazine had a post titled "Future of Feminism: The Hashtag is Mightier than the Sword." Author Catherine Scott uses the success of the recent #FlushRushNow campaign as well as social media outrage over Komen's decision to defund Planned Parenthood to support her claim that social media provides a tremendously powerful outlet for feminist activism:
In a world that spends ever more time online, the power of a blog post or a tweet cannot be underestimated, and the Internet couldn’t make it easier or more convenient to get politically active. The revolution may still not be televised, but I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t at least trend on Twitter.
Social media has the potential to be extremely powerful. With it, we are no longer disparate objectors cursing to our walls about the inequality in the world (that's not just me, right?) Instead, we can see that we are not alone in our objections. Our voices become stronger. We can make a difference.

But are all social media platforms equally capable of harnessing this power?

I ask because I added that Belvedere Vodka ad to my Pinterest board Problematic Visual Media. As the title suggests, I use this board to keep track of visual media that I find problematic, be it ads that promote sexual assault, toys that reinforce a gender binary, or magazine covers that compare LeBron James to King Kong. I truly believe that it is important to share these images and spread the concern over their implications. I don't think any changes will happen in our culture by pretending that these messages don't exist.

But someone immediately commented on my pin. She asked "what made you think it was a good idea to keep it circulating?" I responded with some version of what I just said above. If people don't know this ad existed (and Belvedere clearly didn't want us to know, as they deleted it as soon as they got backlash), then we can't see the way that this speaks to a larger rape culture, and we can't fight against it. We don't know not to buy Belvedere Vodka. We're not informed enough to consume ethically.

At the same time, I noticed that my pin of the ad had been repinned by three other people. The boards they pinned it to? "Products I Love," "so funny," and "Quotes." My comment about ethical consumption and the problem of the visual didn't matter when they repinned it. They created different contexts and I provided an image for those contexts. Did I do more harm than good?

I still believe that we have to know about these clear violations of equality and hold the companies and people who commit them responsible, and I still believe that social media is a powerful way to do so.

So, what do you think. Is Pinterest not a good medium for social activism (I think that it can be, as Sociological Images Pinterest boards are excellent places to look for commentary on visual rhetoric)? Or is people taking things out of context always a risk (someone could easily find the ad through Google Images on this blog post and pin it to Pinterest, for instance, and the context of criticism would equally be lost)?

Is it worth risking your message being used against your cause if it also reaches people who hear what you meant?


  1. I think this is great -- pinning it doesn't imply an endorsement of the product/ad (at least, on the board you pinned it on). If anything, this started a conversation and raised the ad's profile among media activists who might've missed it otherwise.

    1. Thanks! That was definitely my intention, as I've learned about lots of problematic business practices that I never would have seen without someone sharing them, and I'm happy to have the chance to stop purchasing those products.

  2. This is a fantastic post on the power of social media - and raises a great question. Ultimately, I agree with Gwen. As someone who works in tobacco control, I come up against this a lot and it is a concern that I struggle with as well. When we're trying to expose the marketing tactics used by the tobacco industry and demonstrate to people (teenagers and minorities in particular) how they are targeted, manipulated, and lied to...the best way to do that is to show the ads themselves. Naturally, the ad is accompanied by history and explanation, but we're still re-circulating the ad. There's always a concern that we're basically giving free advertising to the tobacco industry. In the end, though, the awareness raised by exposing those marketing tactics outweighs the risk. Teenagers are less susceptible to that advertising once they realize what the tobacco industry is really up to.