On Media Literacy, Slacktivism, and Resiliency
So why are you boycotting Tim Hortons today? Is it because they aired ads by Enbridge? Or is it because they pulled those ads? Or are you the usual mass of morning commuters I see every day, at the five Tim Hortons in my city, who don’t really give a fuck and just want their sugary cream to start their day?
If you live in Canada, or have ever visited (even just our airports), you will understand that Tim Hortons is a part of our national identity. I don’t understand how that happened, but I imagine it’s a lot like how McDonald’s is a symbol of Americanism around the world (and consequently, a symbol of its expansionism).
And maybe it is this façade of nationalism that makes people think we have a right to protest at every misgiving Tim Hortons Inc. makes (except the fate of its founder). I mean, it’s not like we have real political issues that can actually affect our lives, right? Nonsense. Tim Hortons aired an ad in its in-store TVs. Ads from Enbridge Inc. About how energy is needed to run those TVs, and brew coffee, and start up the SUVs packed in the parking lot that will drive our fat asses wherever we are going to continue our consumer ways.
There is clearly a debate that can be had about the pro-oil propaganda from Enbridge. Just like any advertisement, a viewer needs to approach it with some media literacy.
I remember in the 1990’s, TV (and particularly kids TV) was flooded with messaging about being conscious of what we see in the media. Remember the house hippo?
So it would be understandable if a contingent of people on one side of the ‘oil debate’ were standing in line at Tim Hortons, saw the ad, and said, “Fuck this. I’m not shopping here anymore.”
But in addition to making the direct, personal action of avoidance, a group called SumOfUs started a petition. I don’t know who they are and don’t care to research, because I have a feeling that they were just itching to start some shit, and they found some low hanging fruit with Enbridge’s ad campaign.
After 30,000 signatures, Tim Hortons executives considered the impact to their social license and pulled the ad.
Then the polar opposite happened. There was a social media fury calling for a boycott because Timmy’s pulled the ads. It even entered the realm of politicos (should be a red flag that this is bullshit).
And maybe some of this situation has to do with our desperate news cycle giving social media too much credit. The precedent has been set long before this issue, but I would hope that every time a media figure wants to write/say that there has been a social media flurry, there is a careful editor who is considering whether that qualifies as hyperbole.
The line I am trying to understand, though, is the one between media literacy and a sense of entitlement to complain something away with an exceptionable minority (30,000 signatures represents 0.08% of the Canadian population, assuming that all signees were Canadian).
It probably begins with our (relatively new yet) false notion that corporations are required to be ethical entities. And I mean ethical beyond following regulations and performing due diligence. You know the ethical I am talking about—the new moral norms that are expected by the politically correct, without excuse or exception.
Toms Shoes are a good example. I find a lot of people who wear the shoes will go out of their way to let you know they are wearing Toms. Because they have done something good. They basically donated a free pair of shoes to someone in need. Nevermind that the person receiving those shoes may have been the poor desperado who I saw jump a guy for his car in Buenos Aires, or that fashionable stick-up kid who tried to jump a tourist in La Boca on camera. It does not matter that we become totally removed from the good deed, because we received the same warm fuzzies regardless.
And it makes sense. Why would I buy a regular pair of shoes, when I am essentially buying two with Toms Shoes? It is a boon for that corporation to play the ‘ethical’ angle.
But nobody should forget that the central tenet of any corporation is to maximize profits for shareholders. I am not arguing that this is not an absurd notion; I am just saying that that is the reality that these corporations live in.
For us to feel good about ‘aligning ourselves with a company that aligns with our values’ is just an empty marketing ploy, and you are just as much a fool as someone who buys a sweater because the logo is dope.
There are obvious exceptions to my maxim, like blood diamonds and child labour, but in those situations, they are not issues to be dealt with by petitioning and hashtagivism, but by regulators who can set out the rules by which those corporations operate. [Note: Joseph Kony is still free, and it is Interpol, not his lack of social media clout, which has him on the lamb]
For example, many corporations don’t dump untreated and untested effluent directly into our major rivers anymore. They don’t do this because they are concerned that a bunch of kids with expensive phones will start hashtagging some clever complaint. It is because there are legal requirements that have tangible and reliable consequences (unlike boycotts, which are typically wishy-washy and ephemeral at best). And in places where dumping still occurs, it is because the applicable regulator has not set out legislation prohibiting it.
Not that I am saying that we are at the mercy of legislators, who themselves are heavily swayed by large corporations. But I am saying that when only ~60% of us vote in any given election, we are effectively letting those corporations continue to have the sway they do.
Let’s not wade into politics too much, though.
This is about one corporation who paid another to air some ads on in-store screens…and the First World whining that resulted.
The situation reminds me of some people’s reactions to news media—for example, the CBC for my conservative co-workers. Any story featured on the CBC, regardless of its validity, is always qualified by, “Yeah but it’s the CBC”, implying that their liberal bias plays into their reporting (vice versa applies to Sun Media). Like I tell them, I am perfectly okay engaging in news media where I can read the bias. The real danger is in news media where you can’t read the bias. That’s when the Bernaysian doctors are spinning at peak performance.
[Fun Research Aside! Check out Section 8 of this 2014 U.S. Act of Congress]
Similarly, I am more comfortable with stepping into a business by my own will and encountering an advertisement which I can clearly identify as propaganda. And I can understand that one company was paid to advertise another company. Tim Hortons Inc. wants to make money as much as Enbridge Inc. They are more akin to each other than Tim Hortons is to the Canadian identity.
This boycott will soon be forgotten. What should never be forgotten is that if we want to maintain any remnants of free thought, each individual has to build up a resiliency to media campaigns. Instead of feeling so threatened by an ad that we need to stomp our feet and create a ‘social media frenzy’, we need to become resilient and let it slide off a semi-impermeable mental filter.
If you want to boycott Tim Hortons, don’t take some faux moral outrage stance—do it for the real reason that you shouldn’t go to places like Tim Hortons: their non-nutritional foodstuffs. Boycott Tim Hortons because your risk of diabetes is climbing every time you order a double double and your cholesterol rises for every half-dozen TimBits you crush. Those are real threats.