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Academic examines morality in the marketplace and how brands respond to social injustice

10 January 2024

book on table surrounded by flowers

Big Brands are watching you, watching them, a Cardiff University academic says.

In a new book, Dr Francesca Sobande brings together her analysis of media, interviews, survey responses, and materials from the history of advertising as well as exhibitions in London, brand stores in Amsterdam, a music festival in Las Vegas, and archives in Washington DC, to illuminate the world of branding.

Big Brands Are Watching You: Marketing Social Justice and Digital Culture, investigates corporate culture, from the branding of companies and nations to television portrayals of big business and the workplace.

Outlining the concepts of “single-use social justice” and “disposable duties”, Dr Sobande contends with when, why, and how brands comment on certain issues of injustice and disregard others. Critically questioning influencer culture’s role in social and political activism, such work examines a wide range of examples of advertising, digital campaigns, celebrity, and popular culture.

From studying the significance of the television series Succession to music festivals such as When We Were Young, Sobande tackles thorny dynamics between brands, digital culture, and society.

Dr Sobande, based in the School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University, said: “I’ve been researching the different ways that Big Brands are watching people, are watching collectives, and are watching communities. But people are also watching brands."

People are critically communicating in ways that make clear to brands their understanding of ever-present forms of online monitoring, datafication, surveillance, and targeting. People continue to call out the contradictory claims of companies and point out the problem with perceiving brands as activists.

Dr Francesca Sobande Senior Lecturer in Digital Media Studies

“In the process of speaking critically about brands online, is more ‘data’ produced that might benefit them? How has the notion of ‘culture wars’ been leveraged by brands? Who stands to gain from brands (not) commenting on issues of oppression? When is ambiguity invoked to avoid explicitly addressing structural racism? What does ‘social justice’ mean today and how is morality moulded by geo-cultural power relations? Although allegedly values-based consumerism is continuing to expand, so too is criticism of the concept that brands, and capitalism, can ever be ‘caring’.”

Dr Sobande’s new book is a continuation of more than seven years of research on the power and politics of media and the marketplace, including contradictions at the core of consumer culture. By analysing material accessed at the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Institution Archives, Big Brands Are Watching You illuminates the entwined history and cultural memory of branding in the UK and US.

Dr Sobande added: “In a future that may continue to be referred to as a time of ‘permacrisis’, brands may end up vying to be regarded as a vanguard in their sector or industry by heavily nodding to nostalgia for supposedly comforting times before now. How do nostalgic notions of the past mask the reality of history and stymy potential change and action in the present? These are some of the questions that I consider, such as when discussing the business of antagonism and the monetisation of messages about morality.”

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