Consumer activism, promotional culture and resistance: An interview with Dr Eleftheria Lekakis

In this post, REFRAME co-managing editor Dr Tanya Kant interviews Re.Framing Activism editor Dr Eleftheria Lekakis on her new monograph: Consumer Activism, Promotional Culture and Resistance.

Dr Lekakis’s book takes as its premise that consumption and resistance are entwined. From buying fair-trade, to celebrity advocates for social causes, to subvertising and anti-consumerist grassroots movements, consumer activism is now a key part of our fight for social and environmental justice. Her monograph explores the complexities and dilemmas of using the marketplace as an arena for politics, going beyond simply buying or boycotting to critically explore how individuals, collectives, corporations and governments do politics with and through consumption. In this blog post Dr Lekakis answers some questions about the book and explores some of the key issues at the heart of her research.

What is consumer activism and how do you define it in your book? What does it look like beyond established forms of consumer activism such as boycotting / buycotting?
Consumer activism is all the things we do or do not do in terms of consumption that have a political connotation, expression and implication. It encompasses all the times we say we will buy something to support a cause or not buy something to address unethical business practices related to people and planet. A key research focus of mine is on the politics of consumption, which I regard as political practices that consumers engage in; these range from buying (‘buycotting’) or not buying (boycotting) products and services, as well as (online and offline) campaigning, practising minimalism or challenging advertising. Thinking about consumer activism as a set of practices is important to avoid its celebration or condemnation. So, I call it ‘consumer’ activism not because I want to centre or privilege ‘the consumer’, but in order to acknowledge and appraise the centrality and impact of consumer practices.

Consumer activism is not just about buying ethically to support distant others, it is also about (as I say in the book) “questioning justice in the processes of production and distribution of consumer goods in terms of both the labour involved as well as the environmental costs of sourcing, making, and shipping the product, and then translating that questioning into action”. This book is about the areas where consumer activism manifests, the issues it addresses, the technologies it uses, and, importantly, the agents that it mobilises. Looking at nationalism (vis-à-vis race and ethnicity), gender (feminism and post-feminism), and the environment (green or sustainable consumption), the book locates consumer activism in the broader arenas of social change that demarcate areas of contestation in the 21st century. It also pays attention to the variety of agents that mobilise to celebrate or challenge consumerism, namely celebrities/influencers, subvertisers, and activists challenging advertising texts and the industry.

What are some of the key questions that underpin your approaches to researching consumer activism?
The book attends to the following driving questions (among others!). How have consumer goods and discourses captured our imagination? What are the consequences of contemporary mass consumerism for our understanding and practice of politics? How do mass consumerism and advertising discourses condition our understanding of financial, health, and environmental crises? What pathways to action for a better world are we being offered? Finally, what alternatives are there to these?

What are some of the key drivers of this book for you? Where has this book come from in terms of your own research journey?
My research journey started in the mid-2000s outside a London bookshop (where I was doing my MA at the time) and I was impressed by the title of a book: Rebel Sell. The book argued that it is impossible to resist consumer capitalism, as everything becomes part of its selling machinery. Rebels become for sale and rebellious ideas become inspiration for sales. It was a compelling read and it made me change the topic of my initial PhD proposal from the political potential of culture jamming (I was particularly impressed by the work of Adbusters at the time) to questioning the mainstreaming of fair trade coffee which I was witnessing rapidly rising around me. That doctoral work culminated in a book that explored the location of hopes, actions, and cosmopolitanism in ethical consumption practices in the so-called global North.

A few years later, in the early 2010s, my interest in the politics of consumption was triggered again by the re-appearance of nationalist campaigning in consumer culture at the backdrop of the financial crisis and the austerity policies / politics that were implemented in Greece, where I grew up. Noticing the Greek flag appearing seemingly innocuously in daily consumption settings, as well as the evocation of German boycotts (as the culpable party of the Eurozone crisis), I explored the location of economic nationalism in times of crisis.

Following that, about five years ago, I came upon the work of Brandalism, an international movement of artists and activists taking on the global advertising industry, and that spiralled into a series of interviews with transnational subvertising activists intended to highlight their work and focus. So, I like to think of this research journey as the cultivation of questions around the ways in which consumption and activism entwine and how resistance is essentially constantly mediated by the marketplace. The book ties questions of political identity and participation to broader political processes (particularly related to crisis and backlash) and the areas of our cultural and political clash: race, gender, and the environment.

Your book seeks to find potential for collective activism within mass consumer marketplaces. Can you tell us a bit more about how and where you find such potential?
Around the world, there are collective responses to mass consumerism, such as consumer-producer cooperatives, community-supported agriculture, solidarity purchasing groups, ecovillages, barter groups, urban gardening, municipal zero waste strategies, and transition town networks. In terms of individual action, the question becomes more challenging. We are citizens, although for decades we have continuously been addressed as consumers. But, there are ways in which I believe consumer activism – understood broadly as spontaneous or sustained attempts to bring upon change through the marketplace – holds possibilities for prosperity. Here are a few reflections drawn from the book.

1. We can and should find ways of connecting mass consumerism to advertising and resistance. For example:

  • The latest report commissioned by AdFree Cities (At What Cost) cites a number of rights and corresponding international human rights treaty articles.
  • Within this context, citizens in their role as consumers can raise attention to violation of human rights (e.g. freedom of expression, freedom of information, right to privacy).
  • Governments can be responsible for complying with international human law treaties in relation to advertising and consumer legislation.
  • Market actors (including advertisers) can be responsible for upholding ethics in both their practice and promotions.

2. We can (re)consider our spending practices (particularly in global North and highly industrialized countries) and the cost of cheaper availability online. We need to remember that:

  • Mass consumerism, amplified by online shopping and subsequent shipping has significant carbon footprints and produces disastrous waste pollution.
  • Big tech behemoths such as Amazon shape promotional culture (through additional online consumer holidays), instantaneous availability, delivery, customer service and ‘algorithmic personalisation’ (if you like this, you will also like this, and while you are here buy this, because you need all these, and then you need some more). At the same time, they are notorious for violations of labour rights and contributions to the climate crisis.
  • We can use alternatives to Amazon – they exist (see Ethical Consumer’s webpage on this).

3.  (Where possible) we can consider the funding movements that matter to us. This is how our spending can be used for social and environmental change beyond consumption. The majority of social movements witness scarcity in funding, especially when they are not endorsed by philanthropists, celebrities, or brands. The same applies to independent media outlets. There are examples of cooperative journalism that offer clear and nuanced approaches to complex issues, but which often depend on public funding for survival.

Alternatives to mass consumerism in the form of anti-consumerism, responsible or reduced consumerism do exist. Yet, the state of the planet suggests that these might not be enough. We are constantly presented with opportunities to buy ourselves to a better future, where people and planet prosper through our individual consumption. But we need less promotional communication that instructs us to consume for our change. We need more space given to us to talk about the challenges we are facing and imagine solutions together. We need to keep asking what we can do as critical individuals, collectives, neighbourhoods, and organisations: less screen time, more slow time, less plastic, less consumption, more discussion.

What are some of the limitations and dilemmas that come with attempting to mobilise consumer activism from within the marketplace (rather than say outside of it)?
(Content warning: the following answer contains brief reference to sexual assault/ violence).
Consumer activism is characterised by ambivalence. Market actors have definitely and decisively stepped into the arena of global social change. In 2018, Ogilvy published a report called ‘Making Brands Matter for the Generations to Come’, arguing that there has been a significant shift from the ‘environmental and philanthropic consumers’ of the late 20th century to the ‘conscious’ consumers of the late 2000s onwards. The report also acknowledged increasing income inequalities, said to anticipate a shift towards affordable and attainable ‘conscious’ consumption.

In this context, promotional communication to inaccurately or vaguely communicate environmental responsibility and justice (‘greenwashing’), gender equality and justice (‘pinkwashing’) and racial justice (‘wokewashing’) is routinely undertaken by market actors. There are even brands that present themselves as anti-corporate and sustainable, such as Oatly, whose key promotional narrative is that buying the product is not ethical shopping, but actual political activism. We know that such performances (what Susie Khamis calls the ‘brand stand’) can weaken activism by non-business actors, and offer decontextualized and consumerist understandings of social change. Corporations draw lessons from social movements, and address citizens who want to be critical in their consumption through CSR communication, Cause-Related Marketing (CRM) campaigns (e.g. TOMS shoes), socially conscious marketing and advertising campaigns (e.g. Jigsaw’s Love Immigration or Nike’s Dream Crazy), as well as media campaigns (e.g. Make Friday Green Again).

Brands tend to pick out from a universal playbook for social change as Ogilvy’s global report would suggest. As I explore in a chapter in the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Advertising and Promotional Culture[i], In the context of Greece, following the #metooGR movement and the pandemic, global and national brands have also promoted diversity and care for the first time in the history of the country’s advertising, to produce problematic normative stories and solutions for gender justice. Exploring three case studies, I argue that ‘market activism’ in the form of advertising taking a strand for social issues presents normalised and safe performances as well as emergent opportunities for social change. In Greece, advertising is only recently engaging with representations and questions of social change, as evident in the glocalised attempts of Dove to ‘care’ for the (female) consumer during COVID-19, a ‘homegrown’ socially conscious advertising campaign aiming to fight gender stereotypes (but only online), and the case of consumer-driven advertising divestment from a program whose host sympathised with a rapist on live TV. There is much progress to be made in terms of gender politics, and market activism scratches the surface of urgent issues in relation to gender-based violence, discrimination, and refugee assimilation.

What’s the relationship between nationalism, promotional culture and consumer activism, and why does it matter in your explorations?
As a migrant, I am sensitive to performances of nationalism and their soft fluctuation between what Michael Billig has called ‘hot’ and ‘banal’. The book has a chapter which opens with the question of shopping to support one’s national economy, a narrative that tends to be promulgated in times of crisis. It aims to deconstruct the myth of nationalism within the marketplace by questioning ‘nations’, ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’, and appraises relevant theories (banal nationalism, everyday nationhood, economic nationalism, consumer nationalism). Overall, it argues that we need to construct a historical framework in relation to the propagation of nationalism (in relation to race and ethnicity) through the marketplace, that there is nothing post-racial (suggestive that race is no longer a significant social issue) about consumer activism, that religion underscores consumer activism, and that history, ideology, agency, and justice matter in conceptualisations of the phenomenon.

In what ways has a global pandemic and national cost of living crises reshaped the mass consumer market?
One of the most immediate effects of the pandemic on the mass consumer market has been the unwavering rise of online shopping. It is not uncommon these days to walk into a shop looking for something particular and to be sent to a website. Despite (and because of) the cost of living crisis, there are more sales than ever: October sales, half term sales, Halloween sales, Christmas preview sales and Early Prime Day sales. At the same time, despite campaigns and boycotts, the ultra-fast fashion triangle, Britain’s Boohoo, China’s SHEIN, and Hong Kong’s Emmiol are continuing to lure consumers.

Will consumers face an identity crisis when they will not be able to consume anymore? No. They will find ways to consume (‘hack’ the cost of living crisis) through thrift or fast consumer choices. At the same time, the cost of living crisis is not going to see the end of consumer activism, as crises in the past have shown. It is my hope that it will turn citizens to more collective processes (e.g. financial crisis in southern Europe has resulted in growth of collective purchasing initiatives based on solidarity), rather than struggle for survival on their own.

In an age of so many significant socio-environmental issues – the climate crisis, global racial and gendered injustice, digital polarisation and misinformation – are we ‘too late’ to meaningfully fight the overabundances that consumer capitalism creates?
That’s a hard question. First, who are ‘we’? The climate summits highlight again and again the necessity to change consumption patterns to meet the shared goal of keeping climate warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celcius, though in largely equalizing terms. Those who undertake the vast volume of consumption and subsequent pollution are rich and middle-class consumers mostly based in the global North. So, universalist approaches to consumption and environmentalism require urgent questioning. ‘We’ are all not contributing to overconsumerism and ‘we’ are not all responsible in the same ways. Then, no, I can’t fathom that we are ‘too late’. We are alive now and we are inundated with distractions, unable to concentrate for long periods of time, unable to stop looking at our screens for more than a few hours at best, often unsure of what is going on in the world around us, let alone in the world. We can’t afford to be too late.

But then again, there is the elephant in the digital room. While we sit and ponder on how technologies are transforming societies for better or worse, we forget that media (especially smartphones) are major climate polluters and conduits for inhumane exploitation of labour. It is now public information that, among other elements, smartphones typically contain microscopic portions of copper, silver, and gold (that are used to cover circuits as they are good conductors of electricity), as well as cobalt (to power lithium-ion batteries) and some of the rarest elements on earth (that produce the colours on smartphone screen). Tungsten (which makes smartphones vibrate) and cobalt are considered ‘conflict minerals’[ii]. So, when it comes to producing smartphones, we are talking about mining precious, conflict and rare elements, which as geologist Arjan Dijkstra reminds us, ‘[a]ll of these need to be mined by extracting high value ores, which is putting a significant strain on the planet’[iii]. Additionally, a study by the Swedish Waste Management and Recycling association on the waste footprint of products suggests that smartphone production generates an average of 86kg of ‘invisible waste’[iv]. So, when I think of smartphones particularly, I think we might be ‘too late’.

What are the next key questions for those researching consumer activism and promotional culture, especially in increasingly personalised but simultaneously transnational digital landscapes?
In the book, I identify several:

  • How can we locate specific histories of anti-consumerism in different national contexts?
  • What are the anti-consumerist discourses emerging across media platforms?
  • What agencies are involved in resistance through culture jamming? Who is doing the jamming? Who are they targeting?
  • How do incorporation, play, participation, and the law play out in a specific culture jamming campaign?
  • How are targets of culture jamming responding?
  • What kind of rhetorical strategies are being used by culture jammers?
  • To what extent can anti-consumerist agents set the news agenda? How are acts of culture jamming framed in media discourses?
  • How can humour be a useful strategy for subverting hegemonic discourses or propagating counter-hegemonic ones?
  • To what extent can opportunities for participation in culture jamming engage citizens in further campaigning?
  • How does civil disobedience appear in contemporary subvertising activism and what are the arguments for a legal defence depending UN guidance and the national context?

There are several directions to which consumer activism can go in digital landscapes. Of course there are promises. Promises of more connectivity, more consciousness, more connected consciousness. But there are also grounding conditions that mobilise or immobilise citizens and their conscientious consumer practices.

In a forthcoming paper with Kim Humphery and Tim Jordan, we maintain that digital media can only ever be integrated within ethical consumption campaigns as one of a range of techniques and strategies and any attempt to implement activism solely through apps or social media campaigns is likely to produce at best passing moments of publicity. We also focus on three case studies that reflect existing tensions in the creation of agency through activism, such as regarding leadership, organisation, inclusivity, and collective decision-making. I also recently co-authored a paper with Photini Vrikki on what we term ‘platformised consumer activism’; we see this as consumer practices conveying resistance narratives as they are circulated, enabled, and impacted by the ever-growing power and control of social media platforms. Focusing on a successful case of consumer mobilisation against a large food delivery platform’s decision to change employee contracts to freelancer, we try to understand the promises and potential of consumer activism in the age of platform economy.

Who will be interested in your book and how can they read it?
This is a book for everyone who is interested in how consumption choices are connected to politics and processes of social change. The book will be available through libraries, my publisher’s website (for which I am happy to share a discount code to anyone who emails me) and bookshops, and, awkwardly and annoyingly, Amazon.

About the author: Eleftheria Lekakis is Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor in Media and Communications at the School of Media, Arts and Humanities at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on communication, consumer culture, and politics. Her first book explored the relationship between fair trade consumption and political participation. She has also co-edited Art, Law, Power, a volume on the intersections of artistic practice and resistance in relation to the law. Her published work has appeared in journals such as the Journal of Consumer Culture, Popular Communication, Social Movement Studies, as well as edited collections such as the Sage Handbook of Consumer Culture, the Oxford Handbook of Political Consumerism, and the Routledge Handbook of Advertising and Promotional Culture. Eleftheria teaches on topics related to advertising and promotional culture, as well as humanitarian communication, media, and social change. Eleftheria has been a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Bergamo, and Universitat Pompeu Fabra.


[ii] The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the world’s largest producer of cobalt and holds more than 50 percent of the global cobalt reserves. After campaigning from Global Witness (, Amnesty International and AfreWatch among others, attention has turned to cobalt. The Responsible Minerals Initiative has added cobalt as a dedicated focus area in 2017 and works towards eliminating child and forced labour from the cobalt value chain ( According to a BBC article, concerns about ‘conflict’ cobalt is leading investors to seek mining in other countries (



Leave a Reply