Posted by Anne Landman on June 02, 2008

Recently while browsing the Web I came across UrbanDictionary.com, which is sort of a wiki of contemporary slang. I found some of the newer words listed there amusing, like "hobosexual" (the opposite of metrosexual; someone who cares little about their looks), "consumerican," ("a particularly American brand of consumerism"), and "wikidemia" ("an academic work passed off as scholarly yet researched entirely on Wikipedia").

colored rubber wristbandsThen I came across a word that put me into a more thoughtful zone: "slacktivism."

"Slacktivism" (alternative spelling "slactivism") is a fusion of the words "slacker" and "activism," and UrbanDicationary.com defines it as "the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem." It refers to ersatz acts that people perform that they have somehow come to believe are full of meaning, like slapping a magnetic ribbon on your car to "support the troops," wearing a colored rubber wristband to "fight cancer," or refusing to buy gasoline on a certain day to protest high gas prices, instead of, say, actually changing your lifestyle to use less gas.

According to UrbanDictionary.com's definition, slacktivism pertains only to individual behavior, but shortly after I grasped the meaning of the word, I started to see that slacktivism is really much bigger than that. I started to see that corporations perpetrate large-scale, organized slacktivism as a public relations strategy to subtly derail social movements aimed at creating beneficial change.

So what form does corporate-sponsored slacktivism take, and how can people recognize it? The best way to describe it is to give some examples.

Corporate-Sponsored Slacktivism Example #1: "Smoking or Non-smoking?"

Philip Morris' Ying Yang Accommodation Program symbolBy the late 1980s, more and more cities and towns had started banning smoking in restaurants, stores and other public places, and smoking was becoming less socially acceptable. Smoking bans encouraged people to smoke less, even quit, and this in turn threatened cigarette sales. To counter this spreading smoke-free movement, in 1987 a group of mid-level Philip Morris executives convened a secret meeting at Hilton Head, North Carolina, to find a way to undermine the public's growing desire for clean indoor air and to preserve the social acceptability of smoking. Tobacco companies can't fight smoking restrictions openly, since they would be seen as self-serving and would lose credibility, so PM had to come up with a more sophisticated way to slow the public's movement towards smoking bans. The Hilton Head meeting led to PM's Operation Downunder, a comprehensive, long-term, under-the-radar strategy in which PM switched from opposing smoking bans to advocating separation of people into smoking and non-smoking areas in restaurants and other public places. PM then engaged in a massive PR program to promote the establishment of separate smoking sections, while lobbying behind-the-scenes to enact state laws that mandated smoking sections. The laws PM pushed also contained provisions designed to prevent smaller political subdivisions, like cities, counties and towns, from making their own, stricter local smoking laws. PM called this its "Accomodation/Preemption Strategy."

By and large, the public went along with PM's "Accommodation Program;" many states unwittingly enacted PM's proposed "solution" of "Accommodation/Preemption" laws, and people came to expect to hear the question "Smoking or non-smoking?" whenever they walked into a restaurant. The only problem was that smoke didn't know it was supposed to stay in the smoking sections, and after a couple of decades nonsmokers realized that they still had to breathe secondhand smoke everywhere they went. PM's "Accommodation/Preemption" strategy was an ingenious move for the tobacco industry: it assured that smokers could continue to smoke indoors practically everywhere and gave people a genuine feeling that something had been done to address the secondhand smoke problem, when in fact little had really changed. Most importantly, pushing smoking/non-smoking apartheid achieved a key strategic goal for PM: it delayed laws requiring 100% smoke-free places for decades.

PM's "Accommodation Strategy" was an early example of tightly-engineered corporate-sponsored slacktivism: it advanced a fake policy or action that made people feel like progress was being made, while really preserving the status quo and protecting corporate profits.

Example #2: The American Chemistry Council and Plastic Bag Recycling Programs

Taking a leaf from the tobacco industry, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Progressive Bag Affiliates (PBA), organizations that represent the plastics industry, are now using a similar strategy of corporate-sponsored slacktivism to derail efforts to reduce use of plastic bags.

Cities, towns, even entire countries are phasing out plastic shopping bags.Plastic bags exact a heavy toll on the environment: they clog waterways, kill marine life, bollix up sewer systems, get caught in trees, and are an eyesore when blowing around as litter. Their manufacture consumes millions of barrels of petroleum, and since most plastic bags are used only once and then tossed, they create a massive waste stream. Cities, towns -- even entire countries -- have started encouraging people to reduce their use of plastic bags by taxing the bags, putting deposits on them or banning them completely. Like the cigarette makers back in the 1980s who were threatened by smoking bans, the plastics industry believes a massive cultural shift to use of non-disposable grocery bags would devastate their industry. To fight truly effective policies like deposits, taxes and bag bans, the ACC and PBA have started implementing a clever new strategy: wherever plastic bag bans are proposed, they zoom in and push for a watered-down measure that only requires retailers to start voluntary in-store bag recycling programs.

If advocating for a law that mandates a voluntary program sounds ludicrous, it's because it is. When used alone, voluntary recycling programs do little to change people's behavior. Voluntary recycling programs depend on the altruism of a few dedicated souls to be effective, and when implemented as a sole measure, they have a dismal record at keeping plastic bags out of the environment. But forcing a voluntary program on businesses makes politicians feel like they've done something to deal with the plastic bag problem. It also largely preserves the current level of use of plastic bags, because people are given no real motivation to change their behavior.

Once again, that's the whole idea: ACC and PBA are pushing a slacktivist policy that preserves the status quo while derailing serious measures that are truly effective at motivating beneficial change.

Example #3: Cause-Related Marketing

Look around, and you start seeing examples of corporate-advanced slacktivism everywhere. Another example is "Cause-Related Marketing."

A relative of mine was eager to go to a department store on a specific day to buy cosmetics, because the store advertised that on that day it was going to donate a percentage of its cosmetic sale profits to fighting breast cancer. I went along for the ride, and while my relative was doing a good turn by shopping for cosmetics, I asked a saleswoman what percentage of profits the store was donating to fight cancer. She didn't know. Three, four clerks later, no one knew. Finally, someone called a manager, came back and told me it was a fraction of a percent -- a tiny drop in the bucket compared to what the store would make that day from the throngs of women pouring through the doors who believed that they were going to help cure a dreaded disease by buying lipstick and mascara. It probably dawned on few, if any, of them how much more good they could do if they donated just of bit of their money directly to a breast cancer research institute or charity.

The Moral of the Story Is...

...the word slacktivism should not be dismissed lightly.

Most slacktivist individuals are probably genuinely well-meaning people who just don't take the time to think about the value, or lack thereof, of their actions. They're looking for an easy way to feel like they're making a difference, and let's face it -- how damaging is it anyway to wear a rubber wristband or slap a magnetic ribbon on your car? The same can't be said for large-scale, industrial-perpetrated slacktivism, which is highly planned, professionally coordinated and intended to advance a self-serving industrial agenda. Corporate-sponsored slacktivism is, in short, implemented to stop social change that could, in the long run, be crucial to society's long-term well-being.

The bottom line? Learn the signs of corporate-sponsored slacktivism, and don't be deceived. If a group appears and suddenly proposes a policy, program or action in response to a serious problem, ask yourself if the proposal will actually address the problem in a serious way. Does it seem just a little too easy, a little too simple or honestly insufficient to make real progress? If so, it is probably a form of corporate-sponsored slacktivism and should be passed up in favor of a more effective, proven solution.

Comments

I've asked my friends to think of the least effective way to make progress to remedy the bag issue and the "Progressive" Bag Affiliates take the cake with voluntary bag recycling! If you can think of a weaker solution, please post it.

This is an awesome piece! Anne: Thanks a ton for your fun and informative writing. Keep up the good work!

Great article! I see the term "slacktivism" catching on - it's got a better ring to it than the "granny activist" NIMBY catch-phrases of the 80s and 90s.

www.theownersmanual.org

Although I agree that slacktivism is socially rampant, both for the individual and in our economy; a more meaningful term is cognitive dissonance. But again as in 1984, adding more words to our language by copying distinct definitions of words, applying the new definitions to newly coined words, is the same as completely erasing the words from all thought, especially if those words reflect the contradictions in the person's thoughts.

So?

"Slacktivism" may or may not catch on and last. I wouldn't worry about it too much.

Go to wordsmith.org and subscribe to A Word A Day. It's free. After a few months you'll get an inkling of how many words have effectively disappeared from the English language without any intervention by anyone like Orwell's character Symes. You'll probably find you don't care that much because other perfectly good current words convey the very same meanings.

Then too, remember how terms coined with propagandistic intent can backfire -- like "freedom fries."

The point is that in the long run the natural evolution of language will give "newspeakers" their comeuppance.

In "One Market Under God" and parts of "What's the Matter With Kansas?" He does a great job discussing this stuff in detail. I think this is a strategy to create a generation of people who "lean left" and then when they "grow up" and get stupid jobs that contribute nothing to humanity, they can switch over to the far right and talk about how they "saw the light" at their dumb megachurches or whatever.

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It's true! There are so many businesses and services out there who are just slacking when it comes to protecting our environment. It's really sad that they are allowed to continue doing business with practices that are harmful to our Earth and detrimental to important social issues. Everyone in the green community should be able to rate/review their local businesses and services so that we can opt to only use the ones that are Earth friendly. I use this site http://www.izzitgreen.com as a way to do this. It also breaks down what exactly these businesses are doing to protect the environment and why it makes a difference.
For every new registration on the site, www.izzitgreen.com donates an organic meal to a family in need! I hope this helps!
-Crystal