Two black women in music, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, recently staged a blackout, which was observed on June 2, in response to the nationwide protests that ensued after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. “The Show Must Be Paused” was created “in observance of the long-standing racism and inequality that exists from the boardroom to the boulevard.” While its intended purpose was for major labels, who have for years profited from black artists, to disconnect from work and get educated about the country’s interminable racism issue, the initiative suffused non-music brands’ messaging across social media; countless accounts posted a blank black box, transforming the Instagram feed into endless darkness.
Upon sharing black boxes, however, many brands erroneously used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which is being used to help organizers and allies spread information needed to keep people informed, in replacement of the hashtag #BlackOutTuesday; thereby blocking information from being disseminated.
Additionally, some argued that pausing all activity for a day, as encouraged by the organizers of “The Show Must Be Paused,” would counteract the very goal of protests, which is to bolster black voices and the ways which allies can support racial justice.
Many brands voiced their support on blackout day in the form of social media posts, letters from CEOs and donation pledges. In an analysis of the Fortune 100 Best Workplaces for Diversity, Klear found that in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, 31 percent of companies made a public statement against racism and in support of black communities.
Perhaps fearing they lack the appropriate past rhetoric to appear authentic in their support of Black Lives Matter, many brands chose to post one version or another of a black box, with or without supporting text; including the 49ers, Pandora Jewelry, Disney and Vans, to name a few. While others posted messages from their CEO, including Panera, Macy’s and Taco Bell.
SiriusXM and Pandora and Live Nation both announced their observance of Blackout Tuesday. And just before the day arrived, Spotify announced that it will continue to use the power of its platform to amplify black voices but that, “now is not the time for silence.”
Glossier pledged $500,000 in donations across organizations for the cause and an additional $500,000 in the form of grants to black-owned beauty businesses, with more details to come.
Facebook also pledged $10 million to efforts committed to ending racial injustice as it faces internal unrest; Facebook employees held a virtual walkout on June 1 in response to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s inaction on President Trump’s posts.
Peloton pledged both $500,000 to the legal defense fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and hosted a live “Speak Up Ride,” followed by a 10-minute “Breathe In, Speak Out” meditation.
Other brands took a more effective approach in their observance of Blackout Tuesday. ViacomCBS and its networks like Comedy Central and MTV aired a poignant eight-minute, 46-second, text-only video to commemorate the victims of police brutality. The words “I can’t breathe” repeatedly appear to the sound of nearly nine consecutive minutes of deep breathing. On June 1, ViacomCBS went dark for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, which marks the time in which Floyd was killed. ViacomCBS’ network Nickelodeon also announced a “declaration of kids’ rights”:
Ben & Jerry’s, which has an ethos rooted in acts of social justice, was also one such brand, posting this message:
Reebok was possibly the most forthright about the role it plays in Black Lives Matter; in a series of text-only Instagram posts, the brand acknowledged that without the black community, Reebok would not exist: “We are not asking you to buy our shoes. We are asking you to walk in someone else’s.”
A text-only video ad made Nike one of the first brands to make a statement about the protests, pre-blackout. Though Nike’s past campaigns reflect a commitment to social justice, some responded to the ad with criticism, citing Nike’s flawed labor practices and the lack of diversity in its own company.
The challenge that remains for brands is how to communicate support for Black Lives Matter without coming across as tone-deaf. Acknowledging that their success has been built on the borrowing of black culture and profiting from black consumers is undoubtedly the first step.