The New Age Of Activism

While recently watching “Orange Is the New Black,” it occurred to me that activism is back en vogue. In this particular episode, an inmate stages a hunger strike to get better treatment for her fellow inmates. But her message is unfocused and her true motivation is unclear. Of course, she goes about it all wrong, and, in the end, it means nothing. 

As a passionate cause marketer, the character’s failed hunger strike made me consider what makes a successful activist today. Traditional activism generally calls to mind grassroots efforts — we think of picket signs, things being burned and, yes, hunger strikes… In short, we think of our parents’ activism. 

Yet the world around us has changed, and so, too, have the ways we take a stand for the issues we care about. Activism isn’t necessarily about the angry paint-throwing PETA advocate. Social media have helped transform activism from an angry expression of zealots to an empowered every-person who can take action in entirely new ways (think Arab Spring, Proposition 8 and #bringbackourgirls). 



Corporate and nonprofit marketers can take a page from this new activist playbook by creating bold, compelling statements of change with simple, urgent calls-to-action. Activism is a powerful tool for cause marketing and social impact efforts.

A good example of a company adopting an activist mentality comes from values-driven Ben & Jerry’s. The brand supports Vermont's Food Fight Fund, a legal defense fund established to respond to challenges to Vermont's new GMO labeling law. Ben & Jerry’s will donate one dollar to for each serving of Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream dished out in the month of July at the company's scoop shops in Burlington and Waterbury, Vt. The company even has an “activism manager” coordinating the campaign. Certainly no stranger to championing issues, Ben & Jerry’s makes activism as simple (and delicious) as choosing a particular flavor of ice cream. 

Although some brands are adopting the activist mentality to push issues forward, other brands are being forced to change the way they operate because of the “new activist.” This was the case when 17-year-old Sarah Kavanagh targeted PepsiCo through a petition to remove brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from Gatorade. More than 200,000 signatures later, PepsiCo finally conceded. Kavanagh then moved on to petition Powerade (owned by Coca-Cola), with similar success: Coca-Cola recently announced it would remove BVO from its entire beverage line. The power of social media and new online resources to make change happen on a massive scale cannot be denied.

I proudly consider myself a “new activist.” In addition to spending the last year advocating for ALS awareness, I was also recently involved in a grassroots movement called “Save Locky’s Dad.” The campaign supported Nick Auden, a Denver resident battling Stage 4 melanoma. The father of three young children, Nick and his wife Amy were hoping to gain access to PD-1, a promising new therapy to fight deadly melanoma, which was unavailable to him at the time. 

Taking matters into their own hands, Nick’s friends and family formed “Save Locky’s Dad” to convince the drug manufacturers to allow Nick (and others like him) to receive PD-1 either on a compassionate or single-trial basis. A website,, was launched and a few passionate supporters worked to bring his story to the public. 

Nick died last November (four months after the campaign launched), but his campaign proved to be incredibly effective. Along with worldwide media coverage, more than 525,000 signatures were secured via and one drug manufacturer expanded its compassionate-use program. Just as impactful, the governor of Colorado recently pushed for, and helped pass, a new “Right to Try” bill in the state. Largely thanks to “Save Locky’s Dad,” Colorado now allows patients facing a terminal disease the right to try promising experimental drugs before they are given final FDA approval. 

What can we learn from Ben & Jerry’s, Sarah Kavanagh and Locky’s Dad? Cause marketers can be more agile, emotive, authentic and, frankly, scrappy when they storytell their respective calls-to-action in the name of making positive, real change. Social media give everyone a voice and platform to shout support from the rooftops (or across their social networks). That’s powerful. The key for future cause marketing success will be to harness that power and use it for the greater good.

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