Boycotts Are Rough. Memes May Be Worse.

Brand Activism Is Rising, Along With a Tool That’s Social-Media Perfect

Jul 01, 2019

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  Consumers who disagree with a corporation – because of its actions, its corporate social responsibility campaigns or its political statements – often voice their displeasure with their buying choices.

But increasingly, they’re voicing disapproval with memes.

It’s particularly prevalent among young adults – the Gen Z consumers who are 18 to 21 years old. More than one-third of Gen Z adults say they’ve shared memes that lampoon brands for political reasons in the past year. That’s more than the 26% of millennials and roughly double the 17% of Gen Xers who said the same thing. Far fewer boomers – just 11% – said they’d used memes to mock brands they disagree with, according to a new Morning Consult survey.

“What this shows is that Gen Z is speaking out,” says Amna Kirmani, a marketing professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. And it suggests a growing reason to worry.

Kirmani’s own research has shown that companies who are called out on social media because of the causes they support risk not just a boycott, but also a higher likelihood that customers will go out of their way to lie, cheat and steal from them.

“Brand activism is on the rise, and it’s particularly strong in the younger age groups, like Gen Z,” Kirmani says.

The survey revealed that millennials are still the generation to fear for brands. They’re still more likely than Gen Z to say they actually changed their buying habits because of a brand’s politics. But that disparity likely says more about the fact that millennials have more buying power and are more established than their 18-to-21-year-old Gen Z peers.

In coming years, she says, Gen Z is likely to begin to use its full voice and leverage its full buying power. “This is a generation that’s concerned about guns in schools, concerned about climate change,” Kirmani says. “They’re already showing us that they’re ready to use their voices.”

Corporate social responsibility is already a thorny issue for brands. Choosing what to stand for, when even seemingly innocuous causes have fervent opposition, is hard.

They know consumers – particularly younger ones – want the companies they buy from to stand for something. And they want to know what it is. They’re looking for a shared identity, and want to know that brands support the causes they care about.

And that’s one way the marketplace has changed, driven by increased political, economic and social polarization in countries around the world. “That polarization is leading to more tribalism, and, as a result, consumers are acting on those tribes in their product preferences and brand preferences.”

“It’s a big issue,” says Kirmani, who is also a co-editor of the Journal of Consumer Research. She has seen a rise in conference discussions on brand activism and the effects of political ideology on consumer behavior. “Consumers have this new leverage – a lot of it is negative word of mouth – and it’s becoming really important.”




About the Expert(s)


Amna Kirmani is the Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Her research interests include ​morality, persuasion knowledge, ​online communication, ​and branding. Her work has been published in several journals, including the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Marketing, and Journal of Consumer Psychology. Her papers have won the Paul Green Award in the Journal of Marketing Research, the Maynard Award in the Journal of Marketing, and the Best Paper Award in the Journal of Advertising. She is ​Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Consumer Psychology​ and forthcoming Co-Editor of the Journal of Consumer Research.

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