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Authenticating Brand Activism: Negotiating The Boundaries Of Free Speech To Make A Change

Psychology & Marketing

Olivier Sibai, Laetitia Mimoun, Achilleas Boukis


Activist brands commonly engage in controversies to redefine which opinions and ideas are acceptable to express publicly.We conceptualize this practice as free speech boundary work. How can activist brands negotiate the boundaries of free speech to authenticate their activist positioning? By conducting a comparative case study of 18 activist brands, we identify three controversial strategies—creating monstrous hybrids, challenging the establishment, and demonstrating exemplarity—each of them challenging the boundaries of free speech through a distinct mechanism.The results show that whether these strategies authenticate brands’ activism depends on their ability to communicate brands’ moral competency, defined in terms of moral sensitivity, moral vision, and moral integration. This study contributes to the literature on brand activism by proposing an integrative framework that articulates the mechanisms underlying the reformative power of controversial brand activism. Second, we contribute to the literature on brand activism authentication by introducing a competency-oriented view that reveals the heterogeneous and multidimensional nature of activism authenticity and expands our conception of the spectrum of moral territories with which activist brands can engage.

Activist Brands, Free Speech, Moral Competency, South Africa


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