This past weekend, Jay Z -- who, along with Justin Timberlake, dedicated a song to Trayvon Martin at Yankee Stadium -- and Beyonce showed up in New York City at a rally that protested the "Stand Your Ground" laws. Similar protests and rallies in 100 cities across the country drew other celebrities, which was a continuation of the outrage which poured out on Twitter after the jury's verdict. Everyone from Rihanna to Michael Moore to Olivia Wilde to Nicki Minaj expressed their revulsion; with a typical tweet being Ms. Minaj's: "And our taxes paid for that trial. We just paid to see a murderer walk free after killing an innocent unarmed little boy. #GodBlessAmerica"
This piece has nothing to do with whether or not the jury made the right choice. It has everything to do with the way celebrities with power and influence chose to use their cultural oomph -- or not -- in pursuit of their goals. It has everything to do with their conscious effort to maintain their personal brands while fiercely protecting their corporate brands.
Jay Z and Beyonce have CEO access just about anywhere; Beyonce certain has it at Pepsi, where she's got a $50 million deal that goes way beyond commercials. Pepsi actually has a "stake in her art" by "funding certain creative endeavors." What would happen if Beyonce called Indra Nooyi and said either keep your $50 million, or I want Pepsi to start getting involved, now and in a meaningful way, in the fight against "Stand Your Ground" laws. If Pepsi got behind this they could change the terms of the debate. Why not start by funding a nonprofit? I know two people who would start in the TV spots for nothing. The same holds for Jay Z and Samsung. Corporate America needs Entertainment America; they will listen. And if Jay Z and Beyonce turn to social media to tell the world that they want their sponsorship partners to honor Trayvon's memory, can you imagine the impact it would have?
I'm not picking on Beyonce or Pepsi. Or Justin Timberlake, for that matter, who's a big contributor to liberal causes, but who nonetheless entertained at a WalMart shareholder's meeting in an Hawaiian skirt and lei. (Yes, this is the same Walmart that sells a lot of guns; it's legal to sell guns, and it's legal for Justin Timberlake to make money any way he chooses. I just need to call out the hypocrisy, as the same dude argues against "Stand Your Ground.")
People who have no power, demonstrate. People who have power -- economic, personal, and social -- apply that power. Every ounce of it. Imagine if Jay Z and Beyonce -- and all the other celebrities who turned to the convenient, image-building platforms of social media after the verdict -- made a decision to leverage their vast web of business connections in a muscular, concerted effort to repeal "Stand Your Ground." Imagine if that effort included the bold, courageous step of pulling the plug on their economic links to the dozens of companies that didn't support them.
Economic pressure works. It worked in South Africa, where divestiture played a critical role in breaking the back of apartheid. And it worked in Las Vegas, where Frank Sinatra's refusal to perform in any of their hotels, because blacks were not permitted to entertain, or even patronize them, helped de-segregate Nevada because he was a critical, irreplaceable economic engine.
I'm not naïve; I recognize that there's a bright line between the world of convenient moral outrage and the world of economic sacrifice. (Jennifer Lopez's performance for the morally slimy leader of Turkmenistan is another example of the sanctity of that border. She claimed she wasn't aware of his human rights record, but it's hard to believe that someone with more than 22 million Twitter followers doesn't know how to turn on her computer.)
If you believe in something ferociously, you use everything at your disposal to change the course of history. Pension funds everywhere are pulling their investments from the gun industry, even though those companies are great economic performers.
Until we see celebrities take the risk of a real economic hit for their protestations of outrage and statements of support, it's hard not to call their Twitter rants what they are: consequence-free efforts to further their connections with their fans. Call it bonding through branding. All you need to do is show up at a demonstration, dedicate a song, and spill a lot of hashtags and OMGs!! on Twitter.
Social media is a powerful force for change -- just look at the way one Twitter user, someone who calls themselves Cocky McSwagsalot -- started a frenzy that prevented juror B37 from consummating a book deal.
But social media is also a gestural mechanism that while brilliant for blasting 140 characters of moral outrage, is equally adept at allowing performers who project coolness -- but are unashamed and calculating capitalists, simply edgier and hipper personas than the hated bankers at Goldman Sachs -- to escape the real behaviors that demonstrate economic courage. We are the enablers of their hypocrisy.