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Why I Will Never Tell Anyone to “Vote With Your Dollars”

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?”

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14 Responses to “Why I Will Never Tell Anyone to “Vote With Your Dollars””

  1. This is a really interesting post. I am a proponent of ethical consumption, and I do see it as an activist position. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on boycotts and buycotts as activism (interestingly, most of the research on this comes out of the UK; it doesn’t seem to be a thing we focus on much in American studies).

    I think you’re right, though, that this message links money and power in a way that can bind us. I don’t think that ethical consumption should be used alone, but I do think that our current system (where only a handful of mega-corporations are in charge of most of our products as you point out with Axe/Dove and as is especially true with media conglomerates) that ethical consumption has to be part of the push back. We live in a society where things are important to people and they’re going to buy something. To some extent, money is power. It shouldn’t be, but it is. So I think that the activist lens of ethical consumption allows the consumer to assert some control in the language of power that’s already been established in our society.

    That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be other tactics, and you are right that our “power to create and innovate” should be a part of that as well. I’m hopeful that the resources we have available to share with others through online outlets will make it easier to do that. I’m thinking of online shows and even sites like Etsy where people can share their creations without having to enter into the mega-corporations.

    I guess in short, I really respect the position you’re coming from with this, and I do think that it’s problematic that we’re taught (especially as young girls) that we can control our world through what we buy. That message definitely plays into the hands of the companies that want to make money. However, I think that–for the most part–that’s the reality of our current situation. Most of us are going to be consumers anyway, so it’s important for us to be critical consumers. That’s a starting point. I also think that we’ve seen success of ethical consumption leveraged through online organization. Movements like the #FlushRushNow campaign after Rush Limbaugh’s statements to Sandra Fluke, the Change.org petition over the way Huggies treated dads in their commercials, and LEGO agreeing to meet with SPARK after consumer pushback all suggest that consumers have the power to change the market.

    • Melissa says:

      Yes, ethical/careful consumption definitely has a place! I don’t mean to suggest it doesn’t. What bothers me most is when ethical consumption is the ONLY possible option offered to girls, and that happens all the time. Even during our Lego & Seventeen projects, the girls at the helm were constantly getting messages that their efforts were a waste of time because companies “only respond to the bottom line” and that “if you don’t like it, just don’t buy it,” neither of which are productive or helpful. Also, I’m not sure I’d call either of those campaigns “consumer victories,” since neither of them called for a boycott or for a change in consumption patterns. They put pressure on the company, but it was through public discussion, not through “not buying it.”

      There is a certain reality where some people have a lot of power as consumers, but a “realer” reality (if you will) is that the vast majority of people don’t have that kind of power in their spending. Ethical consumption is great if you can do it, but if you can’t, then the ethical consumption framework as it stands (where not buying something from a target company = good and active while shopping there = bad and dangerous) puts the people who don’t have as much disposable income or leeway with their dollars on the same side as the mega corps who are exploiting them, which is not only unfair because it puts the burden of change on the people who have the least, but it also masks who has the real & actual power–megacorps! Granted, that’s not something that comes up in our work a lot–LEGO is a pretty spendy product, and fashion magazines aren’t exactly a “need this to live” item–but when talking about voting with your dollars as a whole, it has a huge impact in the conversation we have around stores like WalMart (to name one example). If the end of activism is just not shopping at WalMart, we’re not doing anything to actually break down the systems that let WalMart become what it is in the first place, nor are we doing anything to help the communities where WalMart is a fixture because it’s largely the only place people can afford to shop (or because it’s the only place TO shop!) This is kind of like what I said in the article–not buying fashion mags makes my life better, but if all I do is not buy it without having any further conversation or push back, then I’m doing literally nothing to help girls who are still reading magazines, and who like reading magazines and don’t want to stop.

      This is a super complicated problem and I think a solution will still involve ethical spending–like you say, it has to! But I want to expand the conversation beyond that.

      • I completely agree with that! In fact, I think that the best thing we can do for ethical consumption as activism is to take it out of an individualistic framework.

        If I–as an individual–make an independent decision not to buy eggs that aren’t free-range, I’m not doing anything to change the corporate culture of egg farming. In fact, that company is never even going to know that I did it. My individual decision to not buy their eggs won’t even register in their profit analysis. Now, I can write them an individual letter telling them of my decision but, again, it’s not going to make a dent on their bottom line and I doubt they’d care.

        But if I turn it into a collectivist movement, if I start a petition and leverage my energy into convincing other people not to buy it, then I have something work with. Suddenly the company can see their bottom line at risk.

        I still think that’s voting with our dollars, it’s just that together we have a lot more dollars to vote with. That’s why I think that the work that groups like SPARK do is so important. It gives us a space to harness that collective energy into something that can make a difference, even for people who don’t have a lot of individual expendable income.

        In fact, when people are dismissive of individuals’ efforts to change a company (as you say so many people were to the girls petitioning Seventeen by saying “just don’t buy it”), I think what they’re really trying to do is shut down the opportunity for collaboration because that’s where the real power lies.

        I’m really glad to see this conversation happening, though, because I think that ethical consumption is more than just one person making individual purchasing decisions, and your commentary offers us some new ways to look at improving that model.

        • Melissa says:

          “In fact, when people are dismissive of individuals’ efforts to change a company (as you say so many people were to the girls petitioning Seventeen by saying “just don’t buy it”), I think what they’re really trying to do is shut down the opportunity for collaboration because that’s where the real power lies.”

          Yes, exactly! And one of the best and most important things about collaboration and building big movements is that it creates space for activism that isn’t just about spending or not spending. Ideally a large collaborative movement would have actions & strategies beyond just boycotts, but boycotts can definitely be a part of it. Like, for us with Seventeen, we want to open up a big conversation and movement that calls for lots of things, from sending letters into the magazine to creating your OWN magazine and everything in between, and choosing not to buy Seventeen (or other fashion mags) definitely plays a role, but not the only role.

          Thanks for your kind words and your engagement :) This issue is really close to my heart and I want conversations like this to be happening all over the place.

  2. Melissa.
    Thank you for breaking down the
    power dynamics of that phrase.
    I never connected how it could continue
    to perpetuate the power dynamics of
    those with money vs. those w/o.

    When I’ve practiced this form of activism,
    I’ve often opted for living w/o the item
    vs. replacing it with something else.
    Although that’s easier said than done
    depending on the item.

    Capitalism is a complicated system that is
    far from perfect. I not a fan of all the ideologies
    that come along with it, but I do believe it has
    immense potential. It’s both fortunate and unfortunate
    that the act of consumption can be seen as a potential
    solution.

    According to wikipedia today, what you are saying is true.
    Uniliver owns both Axe and Dove.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unilever#Products

    My hope is that the socially conscious and critical minded
    movement of professionals and creative types begins to find
    themselves in direct communication with the marketing
    departments of these trans nationals companies.

    For now we can all continue to spread the word about
    how hypocritical Unilever is.

  3. btw Unilever is publicly addressable
    on these two twitter accts:

    @Unilever_Press
    @UnileverBeauty

    Tweet em. I just did.

  4. Erin says:

    A combination of actions is required for change. Like most things in life, a complicated compounded problem will require a series of complex solutions. However, the majority of our country has allocated their time in many different directions and do not participate in many, if any solutions. Choosing to convey their message via their money is one of the last rights that we have not given away to big business. Unfortunately, even with the information on business practices etc., people choose the “easy” or “less expensive” route, instead of using their money power. Walmart, who has been raping our country for years is an excellent example of people taking the easy, better for THEM, in the moment choice. Voting with your money is the base, the beginning step that every person in our country has control of. More power to those of use who go above and beyond, but my lessons to my students will continue to teach the impact they can have every day with every purchase!

    • SPARKsummit says:

      Your Walmart example actually perfectly expresses my problem with “vote with your dollars” being presented as a useful way to enact change–Walmart, as you prob know, builds their empire on being the only game in town. They come into small towns in rural areas and drive out all competition, which effectively drives down wages until most people can only afford to shop at Walmart (or, if they could afford to shop elsewhere, “elsewhere” is prohibitively far away because Walmart’s driven out all the independently owned businesses). Certainly if you have options other than Walmart you should shop at them, but lots of people DON’T have those options, and me electing not to shop at Walmart doesn’t do anything to address the system that allowed Walmart to become such a behemoth in the first place, nor does it do anything to help people who have nowhere else to shop.

      -Melissa

      • Scott says:

        Not really sure I get what the issue with “vote with your dollars”. I can see an issue with “vote with your dollars, do nothing else, expect the change you want to happen”

        just because some do not have the options on every purchase in their life does not put any negative spin on the idea.

        digging a little too deep here

  5. Scott says:

    Melissa,

    I will comment about two comments you made-
    Voting with dollars, and Capitalism
    Your article is what I’d expect from someone educated or should I say indoctrinated by a liberally biased institution.
    Voting with your dollars is in fact an “educated decision”.
    As far as Capitalism goes-
    1. Our “demonized” (and yes imperfect) Capitalist-based society is in-fact the best system to ensure your right to express your opinion (the way you have done in your article) without fear of imprisonment.
    2. Capitalism is not bad. Evil is bad. Greedy evil people are bad. Not a system that rewards hard work, extra effort, and hope. Everyone has a chance to succeed. That is why those who come here legally from another country who believe that if they work hard they will be rewarded do better than a US born native who has been “indoctrinated” to believe they “cannot”. And therefore look to the gov’t to take care of them. I wonder where they determined they shouldn’t waste their time trying?
    The opportunity exists for both, but only the one who is “FREE” in his or her own thinking can achieve it. GET OUT OF THE WAY! Stop feeding the pigeons and they’ll stop hanging around the patio!
    Our Capitalist society is designed to provide ladders for people to reach upward, not nets to catch them.
    The people of the society should provide the nets for each other, not the gov’t.
    Capitalism works… but not when smothered in Socialistic-Liberalism. REWARD good behavior. Therefore, vote with your dollars.

  6. Trent says:

    According to economists like Herman Daly and scientists like Edison and groups like Positive Money, and of course many religions who forbid interest, money itself is unethical. You stay one dollar out of debt, you put someone one dollar in debt. For every profit, there is a loss. Now modern economists try to hide this. They say everyone can benefit, wealth grows expodentially, value is constantly growing etc etc. But it’s all a sham.

  7. ronnie says:

    Hi Melissa,

    I like a lot of the points you make here, but I think the phrase “Vote with your dollar” is great.

    The problems in the world are vast and complex and the collective power of voice can over throw governments and change the world for the better… but in a world where in most countries there is a culture of pointing the finger, this phrase is a simple, succinct way to remind people that the responsibility lies with them, that it is in fact their decisions that shape the landscape.

    If this sparks the awakening of a culture where we start to take responsibility, then I believe this to be the first step in people starting to take real positive action and eventually unite to become that collective power.

  8. [...] instance, Melissa Campbell of Spark Movement argues, “Companies aren’t dumb. They want you to vote with your dollars, because they [...]

  9. Lyn Fenex says:

    Money and power ARE inextricably intertwined. Vote with your dollar. Our consideration of where to spend the dollar determines what power we are giving to the vendor who suggests that their product or service in some way satisfies our requirements. The message is that we can never spend our way to happiness or fulfillment.

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