When the documentary “Blackfish” came out in 2013, SeaWorld was a well-known and beloved attraction visited by thousands of families each year. Kids eagerly begged their parents to take them to see the iconic orca show starring Shamu at one of SeaWorld’s 11 different locations. But during the year that the film aired, the stock prices of the company fell by over 30%. SeaWorld saw its lowest numbers in decades. They continued to lose major corporate sponsorships and report plummeting attendance at their aquatic theme parks years after the initial blow of the documentary.
“Blackfish”, which was eventually acquired by Netflix after its release on CNN, tells the disturbing story of Tilikum, one of Seaworld’s captive killer whales who was involved in the deaths of 3 people. The film by Gabriela Coperthwaite uses upsetting footage, witness testimony, and scientific data to argue that Tilikum’s actions were a direct result of the horrific cruelty inflicted on him ever since he was captured from the wild to be a performance animal. According to the documentary, his story is representative and indicative of the ongoing animal rights crisis perpetuated by these theme parks and largely ignored by the public. “Blackfish” quickly gained widespread popularity for its powerful message.
Despite the immediate effects of the documentary, it still took SeaWorld a few years of financial hurt to come to their senses. They finally announced in 2016 that they would end their orca breeding program and gradually phase out the harmful live performances.
SeaWorld’s changed policy is one that could and maybe already has saved the lives of both animals and humans alike. When we think about the public policy decisions that will make a real difference in the world, we often imagine elected officials wearing suits and enacting state and federal laws in an elaborate capital building. Or at least, that’s what comes to my mind. But the truth of capitalism is that major corporations and the internal policies they contain also have a huge impact–one that is in some ways larger than the government’s control. The problem with this is, of course, that the goal of a company is not to improve the world in which we live but rather to maximize profit. And while we can’t elect our nation’s CEOs, we must understand that the power of these corporations is still heavily reliant on a kind of democracy.
SeaWorld did not change its policy on breeding orcas because of a moral compass; if that was the case they would have done it long before March 2016. They made changes because the voice of the people was felt and reflected in their annual earnings. Many ordinary families chose Disney or Universal instead of SeaWorld during their Orlando vacations as a direct result of “Blackfish,” and by doing so they cast a vote against animal cruelty. Only months after SeaWorld made their announcement, the California governor signed the Orca Protection and Safety Act which banned the breeding of orcas as well as performative whale shows in the state. They effectively mirrored a state bill after SeaWorld’s corporate policy. This is just one example of the interconnectedness between art and media, product consumption, and policy change.
(To clarify, I do not believe this absolves SeaWorld of anything. It is merely an indicator of the power of big business in shaping law.)
There are many instances of consumer choice becoming a political act. Take, for instance, the controversy surrounding Chick-fil-A. The fast-food company reportedly donated significant sums of money to anti-LGBTQIA+ organizations. Activists encouraged the public to boycott the establishment entirely. While many supported the campaign, others online responded with something along the lines of “I support the LGBT community, but Chick-fil-A sandwiches are just too delicious!”
Or take, as another example, Nike’s history of politically-charged apparel and marketing campaigns, including an ad starring Colin Kaepernick that premiered just before he openly criticized their shoe design because it depicted an early version of the American flag. The Nike swish temporarily transformed from an icon of sportswear to one that represented a fundamental struggle of the American identity. Buying Nike shoes became much more than just a question of product quality.
(I haven’t even mentioned the host of corporations that throw their financial weight behind political candidates through Political Action Committees and other loopholes. If you are interested, see the links below for a list of companies that have donated significantly to political campaigns.)
Then, of course, there’s the most obvious form of political consumerism: going green. Choosing products based on their sustainability allows companies with those values to grow and expand. And if large influential corporations are on board, politicians will be much more willing to pass environmental protection laws that might directly impact those companies.
In short, what you buy matters. Works like “Blackfish” help alert the public to the impact of their decisions, but many still spend their money ignorant of the values it could end up supporting. In fact, SeaWorld’s profits are back up, and it just had its best year yet since the documentary.
We need more work like “Blackfish”. We need highly accessible art and journalism that keep American citizens just as informed about their buying habits as about their politicians. We need a public that can consider where exactly it’s casting its vote by buying one brand of ham over another in the grocery store.
I am the first to admit that this is a challenge. It doesn’t come naturally to buy products as a conscious political act. We buy them because they are a nice color or cheap or good quality or unique or the only ones available or well-marketed or a whole host of other reasons. But if you are someone fortunate enough to have the means to be an active consumer in America, know that your ability to influence this democracy goes far further than the ballot box. And we all know that with great power comes great responsibility.
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5 thoughts on ““Blackfish” and the Politics of American Consumerism”
Hi Audrey – great post! It is pretty crazy how much a documentary like “Blackfish” or investigative journalism in general can make people turn against a corporation in the short-run. In the long-run, though, I am curious if SeaWorld’s profits are back up because 1) they are truly more ethical in every way or 2) the scandal has just disappeared from most people’s memories. I wonder if people would be interested to see new documentaries that record the progress that has been made, or if we are only interested in the exposé and not the resolution. Would seeing a report of the positive changes made in one corporation be a morale boost for consumers to continue being vigilant?
Your post also reminded me of how the masses seem to turn their backs on organizations that create tone-deaf media (and then either defend it or profusely apologize). The Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad led to a lot of backlash online, but do we know if it impacted the company in any major way? The recent PETA ad with animals kneeling like Colin Kaepernick also leads me to wonder just how long people will remember these incidents that created so much critical response online.
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I really enjoyed this post! Your call to action is paramount in importance. It reminds me of something I’ve realized more clearly in one of my other classes – the importance of individual agency. We were learning about gentrification and redlining, how cities and other spaces become segregated along racial lines, and I learned that actually, people have the tendency to self-segregate for reasons that aren’t related to top-down policies. There’s even a term for places that are self-segregated: enclaves. The importance of the individual is something that I’ve found easy to forget about in studying sociology and other social sciences, since so much of the individual fate is connected to the social conditions of the time. However, even sociology points out the importance of the individual, and I think that’s a compelling argument for us to take individual action towards issues we care about. When we use our voices and exert pressure on corporations, we really can enact change on a structural level. We can influence policy. Even if current policies aren’t satisfactory, we (even if we aren’t experts) can take grassroots action to transform them. And I completely agree with you that the humanities and arts are needed to raise public awareness and change mindsets – when combined with the facts involved in investigative journalism, I think then we stand the best chance of shifting public opinion.
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Hi Audrey! I wasn’t assigned to comment today but I just wanted to say I really enjoyed your post and I think you brought up a lot of very compelling points in a way that was exciting to read 🙂
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Really enjoyed this post. I think you bring up some great points about the power of media and pop culture in spurring social movements. It makes me think of the long-debated question among policy spheres of which comes first – social movement or policy change. Does the policy allow room for social movement or does social movement force the hand of policymakers? I agree strongly with the latter and I think your piece helps articulate why. Power does not change unless it is in its own best interest or it is forced to.
I find a lot of similarities here in Marx and the realization of base/superstructure dynamics. If we as consumers recognize the extent of our influence and control over institutions – be them private or public – we have a tremendous capacity to enact change.
One thing I might add here is a frustration I have felt over the years with documentaries/investigative journalism of this sort. While I am a big fan as well of films like Blackfish and the other commercials ext. you mentioned, sometimes I am still troubled by the question of access. Who is watching these films? In the case of Blackfish, I suppose one could argue that the Netflix audience, for instance, is the proper target. But in some social change documentaries and other works, I sometimes feel they struggle to break out of the wealthy/educated spheres of pop culture. Thus, I question the full extent to which they can accomplish change if those directly affected are not fully involved in the process. Would love to hear more of your thoughts. Thanks for a great post.
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