Brands stay silent on Tyre Nichols killing as marketers signal it as an industry backslide

George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020 was a turning point for brands as they spurred into action to make pledges and promises in response. But now after more than two years, and multiple new diversity, equity and inclusion commitments later, brands are not reacting in a significant way to the recent killing of Tyre Nichols.

Marketers say it feels like a backslide for an industry that was finally coming to terms with its need to implement DE&I policies and comment on social issues.

On Jan. 7, Nichols, a 29-year-old Black father, was pulled over by the police for driving recklessly, according to police. He was beaten by police after an attempt to flee on foot, according to a video released by the police. He died in the hospital three days later.

In 2020, brands ranging from Airbnb to Sephora to Adidas to PepsiCo to Busch Light Beer to PayPal made pledges and commitments to the Black community and to support minority-owned businesses in the weeks after Floyd’s murder. None have publicly acknowledged Nichols’s death. Spokespersons from those companies did not immediately return requests for comment.

Marketers speculated that over the past few weeks, brands have held off on making public statements because they are afraid of backlash, especially after the 2022 Juneteenth celebrations when brands created tone-deaf-deemed campaigns to acknowledge the holiday.

Some said the circumstances of Nichols’s death — that the majority of law enforcement involved were also Black — have also affected any type of reaction.

“The media plays a crucial role in shaping the world’s perception of the Black community, which impacts what narratives should be prioritized,” said Detavio Samuels, the CEO of Revolt, a cable television network. “With no recollection of our past and biased storytelling of the present, brands will become less inclined to take a stand.”

In response to Floyd’s murder in the weeks after his death, brands posted black squares on their Instagram pages, donated to Black businesses, and used hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeForFloyd to align themselves to the movement. The total expenditure on racial justice TV advertising totaled $1.6 million in that time, according to Numerator, a company that provides data and technology services for businesses.

For some, that period served as an exception — not a new precedent for how brands would react to social issues. Floyd’s murder happened amid pandemic lockdowns when attentions were not as divided, noted Janis Middleton, evp, executive director of inclusion strategy at the brand agency Guided By Good.

“When you’re sitting at home, which is what we were doing in 2020, the eye of scrutiny was big and there were many of them on brands,” said Middleton. “Right now, I don’t want to say brands are getting a pass, but I think there’s so many other things going on and the news cycle is saturated at this point.”

So went the significant pressure on brands to respond to these issues, said Middleton and Samuels.

“Most brands got in the game for a headline and not to drive actual change,” said Samuels, adding that it’s a necessity for brands to invest in Black-owned media to “deliver our stories in an unbiased manner.”

How future generations could force permanent change

Younger generations might change the pressure they put on brands to respond. Gen Z, for example, tends to be more vocal about criticizing brands. According to a study conducted by Accenture, brands have been pushing for brand purpose because Gen Z is driven by it.

“I envy the younger generation who can put so much aside for the things that should never be left alone like the demand for us as a nation to remain intolerant to such heinous acts,” said Lauren Petrullo, CEO and founder of digital marketing agency Mongoose Media.

Despite this generational belief, a majority of the industry’s efforts now to mark Black History Month this year amounted to little more than checking a performative box, per Samuels as he pointed out that, “It is evident that actions were not backed with authenticity because the same fury that was birthed in 2020 is non-existent now.”

According to Alfred Edmond Jr., svp and executive editor-at-large at Black Enterprise Magazine, a Black-owned multimedia company, it is safer (for now) for brands to remain silent instead of taking a stance because their stakeholders are not asking for it.

“Brands are still navigating their follow-through on the DEI and other initiatives launched in efforts to fulfill the pledges and promises made in the wake of George Floyd’s murder,” said Edmond. “The death of Nichols does not change that, though it may bring renewed pressure for them to remain committed to those initiatives, even in the face of a possible recession and only time will tell.”

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