Last week, I attended the Influence Nation Summit, an event that was smaller than a conference but more elaborate than a panel, held near the place where Jonah Hill once dropped an iced coffee in front of the paparazzi. I was told I would be informed about emerging techniques and ideas regarding influence, expertise, and experience, and I would be leaving, I was promised, with a stronger sense of “results-based influencer marketing.”
Even as someone interested not only in influence, experience, and expertise but also young Americans and social movements, I had no idea who this event was actually for. I saw no promotion, and knew no one else attending. The main organization putting it on seemed to be called Cause and Social Influence, which “delivers insights on how the public is moved to action for social change.” OK!
After being checked in by a pair of hosts, I descended the venue’s stairs, into a makeshift auditorium and wondered which of the various Apple products I’d brought with me would die first. I was on time, maybe even early for the event, but few people were around. Another early attendant walked around in a thick bright red T-shirt, the kind you only wear if you’ve produced it yourself, with a PAY YOUR INTERNS logo.
While waiting for the event to begin, I noticed the brochure I’d been given when I checked in was actually a tiny notebook, which came with a pen bearing the logo of the Ad Council, the logo of which I recognized from countless PSAs and commercials from my youth. (Later, I found out that they were responsible for Smokey the Bear, the longest-running public service announcement, who was first created as a work of propaganda to combat the World War II-era fear that the Japanese would use forest fires as a form of combat.)
The materials I was given also included an Ad Council card reading “WHERE STRATEGY + INSIGHTS + CAUSE CONVERGE,” which explained that the organization “start[s] with understanding opportunities and challenges then work together to create a customized approach to define (or re-define) your strategy to social issue engagement.” Other items included: a schedule of events and list of speakers with bios, and a small flexible grey plastic card holder which sticks to the back of an iPhone and could fit maybe two business cards. I am still baffled by its purpose.
I joined my fellow attendees, other business casual-dressed millennials. Everyone had an earnest, if nerdy, energy; and even if I wasn't factually the youngest on the spectrum, it felt like I was. It felt as if everyone else possessed an air of out-of-touch maturity, but maybe that was just because no one was trying to be cool. I began to notice the name “Levi Strauss” on the brochure, the room’s television screens, and on random signage, and quickly discovered that the event was, I’d started to suspect, affiliated with the Levi Strauss of jeans fame. We were soon introduced to someone named Jason, who wore a blue cowboy hat and a bunch of Levi’s clothes.
“For more than 67 years,” he told us, Levi’s “has embraced the energy and events of our time to sponsor and to support the issues of HIV and AIDS, worker’s rights and wellbeing, and social justice.” He continued: “As an iconic American company, what we say about America really does matter,” he said, adding that, “a corporation has more of an obligation than delivering a profit — it has to take a stance on the issues of today.” I wondered what issues of the day Levi’s thought of as urgent, important, necessary; and if it would include a panel on why no one wears skinny jeans anymore.
A man named Derrick, who works for Ad Council and had introduced Jason, then came back onstage to tell us things about young Americans. The research, he explained (I later saw that they’d emailed me a copy of the research in question) showed that Gen Z cares about climate change. The audience remained silent.
I began to doubt my instinct that this was total bullshit when the first non-Levis presenter, a man named Robert Suttle, took the stage. Suttle told the audience that he had spent six months in prison for not disclosing his HIV status during a consensual sexual encounter with a partner. Following his incarceration — during which he discovered that he was not the only person to be punished for such an offense — he dedicated himself to activism in the hopes of “making people aware of these laws” so that they could one day be changed. During the Q&A portion, he went into more detail about the normalcy and management of living with HIV. All of the condescending cynicism for corporate philanthropy curdled in my stomach, and my chest got tight. I choked up and clapped, and wanted to hug the guy and then show my contrition by crawling into a cold pile of dirt.
I was planning on a day of light mockery at corporation corniness, only to be confronted by actual tragedy and being exposed to an issue that was of legitimate consequence. Then my old pal Derrick introduced the next panel, consisting of a woman named Aracely Jimenez-Hudis, the digital media manager for The Sunrise Movement (her T-shirt prominently featured the phrase, “Green New Deal”), as well as a woman named Jess Morales Rocketto, the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s Political Director. Derrick asked Jess to tell the audience why they might already be familiar with her. Smiling and nodding, she responded, “I have the esteemed honor to be the person that sent Hillary Clinton’s text messages in 2016. So, if you got a lot of text messages from somebody who said, ‘Hey, it’s Jess,’ that was me and I’m not sorry.”
The conversation devolved into one of those discussions where you’re following along, everything makes sense, but upon remembering it you can only recall a low humming sound and a feeling that you got the gist at the time.
This made Derrick very excited. The conversation devolved into one of those discussions where you’re following along, everything makes sense, but upon remembering it you can only recall a low humming sound and a feeling that you got the gist at the time. I perked up when Green New Deal shirt then brought up her own brush with fame, which involved protesting in front of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
While both the issues of immigration rights and avoiding extinction via climate change are undeniably important, I was still looking for any statements from the panelists that gestured towards anything beyond notions of “raising awareness.” Raising awareness seems to include speaking both publicly and privately, doing anything online, and holding or attending protests. They stressed the idea of “social influence,” which in this context meant that they cared about delivering information and/or making that information more widely known so that others could continue to deliver that information to others. After raising awareness, we’re supposed to buy a t-shirt (great for passive message-spreading), attend a protest, and then go home, waiting for things to change. While passing the time, we can always scroll through the hashtag connected to the issue and increase awareness by upping the engagement on some posts.
Before too long, I realized that I had completely lost track of time. Without food or water, and with cold coffee diluted beyond recognition by ice cubes, my mind grew weary. It was time for a panel on mental health, featuring a moderator who explained that we should foster a “culture of caring where we are checking in with others.” One of the panelists, from the Ad Council (Disclosure: another panelist was a representative of The Outline’s parent company), told us that they had partnered with those with large social media followings and lent them some buzzwords, with which they might be able to spread the word about mental health. Billie Eilish then appeared onstage, in the form of an Ad Council PSA, to tell the audience about easy it is, and how much it can mean, to ask a friend if they’re “really okay.” Hugs go a long way, Billie Eilish told us. (“We really want to find the authentic connection to the issue,” Ad Council said while introducing the clip.)
The endpoint of all of this was a social media campaign called Seize the Awkward, which was meant to “upstream mental health awareness” and “encourage young adults to talk about mental health with their friends.” Never addressed was my own experience with Sad Twitter, sustains itself through disassociation memes and a million tweets a minute about Wellbutrin, or that I and probably others in the audience had a list of personal connections who have been taken from us by suicide and overdose. As a term, “Awkward” harkens back to a time when everyone online was obsessed with “loving bacon,” being “totally random,” and bemoaning “awkward” situations that were more often just minor inconveniences. But part of me agreed: sometimes the only thing we can do is listen and respond honestly without trying to fix it. But also, after every mental health or addiction tragedy, a groundswell of tweets reminding us all to “check on your friends” and “pay attention” only seems to do so much. I wondered if the only thing we can really do is bear witness and relate, and how far we have come if those remain our only tools. How long can we tell each other to look up “sliding-scale therapy” on Google? I broke down and logged onto the website listed on the television screens to submit a question. I asked the following two questions:
“Could all this be summed up as an awareness campaign, and if not, what are the tactical tools your organizations suggest beyond conversation?”
“How does ‘individuals starting conversations’ result in structural change and protections? Is this a Band-Aid?”
My questions were never answered, so I played Tetris to self-soothe, counting down the minutes until I could go home.
Shortly thereafter, an Ad Council representative introduced the last two guests, Andy Bernstein of HeadCount, a voter registration organization; and Yves Mathieu, a charismatic “Model/Singer-Songwriter/Activist” with facial tattoos and whose bio on the event’s website referenced fostering pitbulls. While HeadCount Man referenced the organization’s get-out-the-vote efforts (“Corporate America is going to engage around [the 2020] election. We are nonpartisan, so we're a very good partner in that regard.”), Mathieu referenced incarceration and disillusionment with voting in black communities who have never had their needs met.
He said he works with high school kids that are victims of gang violence and police brutality, and that it’s “really difficult to trust and believe that something is going to change or something is going to happen when you are in the midst of that issue and you’re sitting in that problem.” He spoke about a 15-year-old in New York who had been caught with a dimebag of weed and held in Riker’s until he was tried at 18, and not released until he was 24. He ended with a story about the time he as at a target self-checkout and a man stared at him and said, “Because of you, my son thinks it’s okay to be gay,” and then threatened to attack his home. The guy from HeadCount told a story about helping a cab driver register to vote.
I thought of all the speakers’ day-to-day lives answering emails and making phone calls, of probably filling the office drip coffee maker under probably fluorescent lights, of how the nonprofits they worked for would go away if the causes they attempted to address ever were ever fully fixed.
I thought of Nike, who had been synonymous with sweatshop labor when I was a kid, but is now viewed as a model of corporate progressivism through its partnership with Colin Kaepernick, whose on-the-field kneels have moved me to tears. I thought about Levi Strauss, an American company backing this event even if it stayed silent on how much it agreed with the speakers, and I thought of the hours I had spent at this event, and how they had made me fatigued and discouraged. I thought of the Levi’s store on 14th St., on 34th St., in nearly every mall. I thought of denim production and the fact that at any moment one in three people is wearing denim, and that on average an item of clothing is worn seven times before its discarded. I thought about the gallons of water it takes to produce one part of jeans and the gallons of water in the ocean.
I thought about voting machines and access to them, and of the Minor Threat song where Ian Mackaye sings, “At least I’m fucking trying,” and of the BP tweet I once saw linking to a website that helped you calculate your own carbon footprint, of corporate malfeasance and individual responsibility. I thought of this commercial from the Ad Council, and of this one and this one and this one, and as the panel was wrapping up, I briefly thought about staying for the trivia hour that the host was now telling us about. All of these thoughts passed, and then I went home.