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Commodity Activism

Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times

Roopali Mukherjee
Sarah Banet-Weiser
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 314
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  • Book Info
    Commodity Activism
    Book Description:

    Buying (RED) products - from Gap T-shirts to Apple--to fight AIDS. Drinking a Caring Cup of coffee at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf to support fair trade. Driving a Toyota Prius to fight global warming. All these commonplace activities point to a central feature of contemporary culture: the most common way we participate in social activism is by buying something. Roopali Mukherjee and Sarah Banet-Weiser have gathered an exemplary group of scholars to explore this new landscape through a series of case studies of commodity activism. Drawing from television, film, consumer activist campaigns, and cultures of celebrity and corporate patronage, the essays take up examples such as the Dove Real Beauty campaign, sex positive retail activism, ABC's Extreme Home Makeover, and Angelina Jolie as multinational celebrity missionary. Exploring the complexities embedded in contemporary political activism, Commodity Activism reveals the workings of power and resistance as well as citizenship and subjectivity in the neoliberal era. Refusing to simply position politics in opposition to consumerism, this collection teases out the relationships between material cultures and political subjectivities, arguing that activism may itself be transforming into a branded commodity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6301-8
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Roopali Mukherjee and Sarah Banet-Weiser
  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)

    The sense of a crucial historical shift is a key structure of feeling of our times. Upheaval, restructuring, shift, and dramatic social and economic change are not only the prevailing contemporary discourses but also likely to be how our moment in time will be characterized historically in the future. While modernity’s upheaval created a sense of instability and unrootedness, in the contemporary intersection of neoliberalism and digital media, the boundaries between culture and the economic have been redrawn in dramatically new and consequential ways. So many aspects of our society, including formerly unquestioned solid social institutions such as finance, politics,...

  5. Introduction: Commodity Activism in Neoliberal Times
    (pp. 1-18)

    Buying Product RED items—ranging from Gap T-shirts to Apple iPods to Dell computers—means one supports the Global Fund to help eliminate AIDS in Africa. Consuming a “Caring Cup” of coffee at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf indicates a commitment to free trade and humane labor practices. Driving a Toyota Prius, likewise, points to the consumer’s vow to help resolve the global oil crisis as well as fight global warming. Purchasing Dove beauty products enables one to participate in the Dove Real Beauty campaign, which encourages consumers to “coproduce” nationwide workshops to help girls and young women tackle...


    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 19-22)

      The titles are revealing:Love Marks; Emotional Branding; Citizen Brand.All are books written in the past several years meant to guide marketers and advertisers on how to navigate the increasingly blurred relationships between advertising, branding, emotion, and politics. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, it became clear that advertising and brand managers were developing new strategies to capture the attention of ever-more-savvy consumers by appealing to affect, emotion, and social responsibility. Indeed, the definition of the contemporary “consumer” does not simply point to what kinds of purchases one might make; more than that, the “consumer” is a...

    • 1 Brand Me “Activist”
      (pp. 23-38)

      In 2006,Timemagazine named “YOU” person of the year. Arguing that the Internet and social network sites had facilitated the emergence of “community and collaboration on a scale never seen before,” the magazine went on to celebrate Web 2.0’s revolutionary political possibilities, suggesting that the new Web demonstrated “the many wresting power from the few,” which might then lead to “a new kind of international understanding.”¹ But, what kind of power does creating a Facebook profile, posting personal videos on YouTube, designing a cool avatar on Second Life, or “tweeting” your thoughts hourly constitute? What form of revolution is...

    • 2 “Free Self-Esteem Tools?”: Brand Culture, Gender, and the Dove Real Beauty Campaign
      (pp. 39-56)

      In October 2006, promotion company Ogilvy and Mather created “Evolution,” a viral video for Dove Soap, the first in a series of videos stressing the importance of girls’ healthy self-esteem and encouraging critique of beauty industries. “Evolution” depicts an “ordinary” woman going through elaborate technological processes to become a “beautiful” model: through time-lapse photography, the woman is seen having makeup applied and hair curled and dried. The video then cuts to a computer screen, where the woman’s face undergoes airbrushing to make her cheeks and brow smooth, as well as photo-shopping and computer manipulation to elongate her neck, widen her...

    • 3 Citizen Brand: ABC and the Do Good Turn in US Television
      (pp. 57-75)

      In 2008, the ABC network presented an ethical twist on the reality game. Instead of competing for love matches, celebrity status, or cash prizes, contestants onOprah’s Big Givehelped the needy. Backed by Winfrey and corporate sponsors, they crisscrossed the US raising funds for causes, disseminating free food and toys, and arranging for medical care and social services while the cameras rolled. Judges evaluated the interventions, sending one player home each week until the Biggest Giver was revealed. In a tie-in promotion, ABC donated seed money to local station affiliates, challenging them to “do something big with the money,...

    • 4 Good Housekeeping: Green Products and Consumer Activism
      (pp. 76-92)

      “Green products” in many ways seem to embody what this book terms “commodity activism” par excellence. Every year more products labeled as “green” hit the shelves, raising questions about the extent to which environmental awareness is changing the quality of objects and services for the greater or greener good, and to what extent environmental anxieties are merely (and ironically) being seized upon and channeled into encouraging us to buy more and more stuff. Furthermore, the extent to which such products can be understood to be “environmentally friendly” or as exemplary of corporate greenwash is often notoriously fraught and subject to...


    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 93-96)

      As the liberal welfare state and its apparatuses of social justice are battered by populist and legal assaults, and as the legitimacy of and resources for public programs wither within the cultural imaginary, celebrities and privatized philanthropies within a “nonprofit industrial complex” have gradually taken their place assuming responsibility for persons who, within the terms of neoliberalism, are called to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. Social action in the neoliberal era is, thus, characterized by the increasing presence of Hollywood celebrities, pop icons, and corporate moguls who have stepped in where the state used to be, proliferating privatized...

    • 5 Make It Right? Brad Pitt, Post-Katrina Rebuilding, and the Spectacularization of Disaster
      (pp. 97-113)

      In today’s entertainment-saturated world, the notion of “spectacle” has become a key concept in the social sciences, arts, and humanities even though scholars contest its meaning and societal effects. Spectacle refers to the dominance of amusement, leisure, and tourism in the organization and marketing of cities as entertainment destinations.¹ Casinos, shopping malls, sports stadiums, and theme parks are the most visible spatial manifestations of spectacle and signal the centrality of dramatic public displays and commodity images in everyday life.² Closely related to the production of spectacular spaces is the emergence and proliferation of sports spectacles like the Olympics and the...

    • 6 Diamonds (Are from Sierra Leone): Bling and the Promise of Consumer Citizenship
      (pp. 114-133)

      Late in the summer of 2005, hip-hop superstar Kanye West released his highly anticipated second album,Late Registration.¹ Among the songs on the album, West unveiled the music video for the single “Diamonds (Are from Sierra Leone)” that offers a stylized indictment of human rights atrocities fueled by the global trade in African “blood diamonds.” Raising thorny issues about child soldiers, slave labor, and the culpability of the global diamond industry within these conditions, West’s video appeared in the midst of a surge of Western interest in the “conflict diamond” trade and its humanitarian costs.

      In a resolution adopted in...

    • 7 Salma Hayek’s Celebrity Activism: Constructing Race, Ethnicity, and Gender as Mainstream Global Commodities
      (pp. 134-153)

      Mexican-born telenovela star Salma Hayek first crossed the cinematic border between Mexico and the US in 1995 when she appeared in her first Hollywood film as a gunslinging, sultry bookstore owner and Antonio Bandera’s spitfire love interest in Latino director Robert Rodriguez’sDesperado. For the next four years, such as in this 2004 interview withLatinamagazine, the role Hayek humorously refers to in interviews as the “bikini girl” defined her Hollywood career.¹ From54(1998) toWild Wild West(1999), Hayek was more often than not depicted wearing as little clothing as possible. After years of playing one-dimensional English-language...

    • 8 Mother Angelina: Hollywood Philanthropy Personified
      (pp. 154-173)

      Angelina Jolie sets the scene. Over a sea of provocative and heartwrenching images of hardship and disease, she intones: “Extreme poverty means not having enough food to feed your family; walking long distances barefoot to collect safe water to drink; hospitals overflowing with patients suffering from diseases that should be preventable.” These images and words introduce a 2005 video diary produced and aired on MTV in which Jolie accompanies UN adviser and economist Dr. Jeffrey Sachs on a trip to Africa. The video not only serves as documentary witness and record of indigenous problems but also sends a message to...

    • 9 “Fair Vanity”: The Visual Culture of Humanitarianism in the Age of Commodity Activism
      (pp. 174-194)

      These are the opening lyrics ofGlobal Night Commuter: A Musical to Believe In,a seven-minute spoof—with a serious twist—of the 1986 Disney filmCaptain EOthat featured Michael Jackson singing “We Are Here to Change the World.”¹ Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the original short musical was created for a now-defunct Walt Disney World attraction at the Epcot theme park. In this 2006 video remake streaming on YouTube, the three young American founders of the nonprofit organization Invisible Children—and throngs of break-dancing youth—perform a technicolor musical of intertextual, hipster bliss. The video culminates in choreographed...


    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 195-198)

      In 2010, a new Levi’s billboard campaign featured “workers” from the steel belt town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, engaged in various poses of industrial labor using the slogan “We Are All Workers.” What does it mean that such an iconic slogan from the history of the American labor movement is harnessed as corporate advertising? Against nostalgic laments that “there are no more movements,” this part takes seriously the political meanings of such instances of corporate appropriation. Contributors to part 3 of this volume locate the emergence of commodity activism within the context of American social movements and the historical relations between...

    • 10 Civic Fitness: The Body Politics of Commodity Activism
      (pp. 199-218)

      The past three decades have witnessed an exponential growth in physical activity–based fundraising events, or “thons.” During this time, all the major health foundations in the US began to stage national networks of charitable walks, runs, and rides. Their efforts have included the Relay for Life and Making Strides Against Breast Cancer (American Cancer Society); Jump Rope for Heart and Hoops for Heart (American Heart Association); the Asthma Walk (American Lung Association); the Late Night Walk and Team in Training (Leukemia and Lymphoma Society); March for Babies (March of Dimes); and the Race for the Cure and the Breast...

    • 11 Eating for Change
      (pp. 219-239)

      Food shoppers are now regularly invited to practice their politics through their purchases. Whether it is upgrading to a fair-trade brew at a coffee shop, choosing organic milk at the supermarket, or perusing local fare at farmers’ markets, consumers are increasingly encouraged to approach the seemingly mundane task of grocery shopping as a political event.¹ While varied, invitations to become ethical food shoppers are often organized around a central message: namely, that consumer food politics is a win-win enterprise, serving up delicious goods that also deliver a social or environmental “good.” A food journalism article celebrating the rewards of locally...

    • 12 Changing the World One Orgasm at a Time: Sex Positive Retail Activism
      (pp. 240-253)

      In May 2001, Babeland, the women-run sex toy company, held a rather unusual press conference at its retail store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Provocatively dubbed a “Masturbation Summit,” the event brought members of the press together with an impressive group of feminist activists and educators who had been invited by the business’s owners to discuss the benefits of masturbation and the importance of sexual freedom.

      In an effort to bring the topic of masturbation out into the open, a number of feminist sex toy businesses have joined together since 1996 in declaring the month of May a...

    • 13 Pay-for Culture: Television Activism in a Neoliberal Digital Age
      (pp. 254-272)

      As television has undergone significant industrial, technological, and cultural transformations with the expansion of cable/satellite delivery and its “convergence” through the Internet, so too have the strategies and orientations of television activism. At the height of television’s classic network period in the 1970s when three broadcast networks drew nearly 90 percent of the viewing audience, advocacy groups representing communities of color, women, gays and lesbians, child advocates, religious conservatives, and other organizations campaigned to impact the prime-time network representations that held such symbolic power. Public interest provisions in federal broadcast policy gave advocacy groups legal leverage to mount national protests,...

    • 14 Feeling Good While Buying Goods: Promoting Commodity Activism to Latina Consumers
      (pp. 273-292)

      This chapter examines the ways in which commodity activism is marketed to Latina/o consumers, one of the fastest-growing and most diverse marketing segments worldwide.¹ Currently, nearly 45 million Latinos reside in the US, and by the year 2050, they will constitute more than 25 percent of the US population.² In Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the populations are expected to reach well over 600 million people by the middle of the century.³ Although US Latinos are culturally and racially heterogeneous, with many people having family origins rooted in Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean and identifying as indigenous, Afro-Latino,...

  9. About the Contributors
    (pp. 293-296)
  10. Index
    (pp. 297-303)