By Melissa Campbell
In the ongoing conversation around SPARK’s Seventeen Magazine campaign, I’ve been hearing over and over again my absolute least favorite piece of advice for young people (or any people) who are trying to make a difference in the world: “Vote with your dollars!”
I’m not kidding that this is my least favorite advice ever. Hearing people tell young activists to just buy something else makes my skin crawl the way hearing teachers and parents tell little girls that their male classmates “are just being mean to you because he likes you!” does.
But everyone loves this advice! It makes us feel smart and capable and like we’re truly making a difference. And yeah, not buying beauty magazines really improved my own personal quality of life, but what, exactly, did my abstinence do for the girls who still read those magazines? Literally nothing. So here’s why I’m telling you, SPARK fans, that I will never ever ever tell anyone, especially teen girls trying to change their worlds, to “vote with your dollars.”
“Vote with your dollars” reinforces dangerous ideas about power that we should be trying to break down.
Girls are already told again and again and again that the way they can achieve power in their life is through spending: from lipsticks that promise they’ll help you “be anything” to t-shirts emblazoned with “girl power!” logos (those were a staple of my childhood; thanks, Spice Girls!), girls are sent loud and clear messages that the way to shape and control their lives is through what they buy. Telling them not to buy something might feel like you’re flipping the script, but are you really?
When people refuse to buy something, or buy product B instead of product A for what they believe to be political purposes, they might affect the bottom line of a company. They might even provoke that company to make changes to their products or practices. That’s great! But what they’re also doing, and what is so dangerous about telling young people that “voting with your dollars” is the most important thing they can do, is leaving the bulk of the power in the hands of those companies. This limits our own power—our power to create and to innovate and to call for new opportunities and experiences—to the power to consume (or not consume). It takes all of our experiences and lives and wants and needs and desires and possibilities and puts them into a dollar, ultimately conceding that yes, the best we can do is give other people our money and hope for the best.
Telling people to “vote with their pocketbooks” reinforces the idea that money and power are irrevocably intertwined. We shouldn’t look to those among us who have the most disposable income or the biggest advertising budget or the largest market research team to be setting the tone of our cultural landscape. We should be setting that tone ourselves. Not all of us have money, but all of us have voices, and it would do us well to encourage young people to develop and strengthen their voices rather than wait until they have enough money to be counted (a day that, for many, will never come).
And anyway, companies aren’t dumb. They want you to vote with your dollars, because they want your money—that’s it! They don’t care about your ideals. For example, did you know that Dove and Axe are owned by the same corporation, so when you “vote with your dollars” by buying Dove products because you love their ad campaigns, you’re supporting a company that’s responsible for some of the most disgustingly misogynistic ads ever created? That’s gross! But it’ll never be addressed if we keep pushing consumption as activism.
The connections between sexualization, capitalism, and power are complicated, and I don’t expect there will ever be such a thing as a “perfect” solution. But I can tell you what isn’t a solution: watching teenage girls mobilizing for a cause that’s important to them, seeing them gathering signatures, setting meetings, and planning for change, and telling them, “you know, you’re really wasting your time. Why don’t you just not buy it?”