Tom Megginson alerted us to an interesting example of “astroturf” activism.  After complaints from religious groups, the New York City transit authority took down the following ads from buses running through largely Hasidic Jewish communities:

Georgi Vodka saw the move as a marketing opportunity and hired models to wear the bikini pictured in the ad and pretend to protest the censorship.  Playing on their nudity, their signs had slogans such as “MTA should butt out of bikini ads.”

To contrast this with genuine grassroots campaigns in which “regular” people come together to try to change something about their society, sociologists call this type of marketing “astroturf” activism, fake protests arranged and paid for by companies.

So first we have a religious community expressing its displeasure to the city regarding an advertising campaign they find offensive.  They organize, in true grassroots fashion, to have the ads removed from the buses that travel through their neighborhoods.  Then a company hires people to put on a counter-protest, in true astroturf fashion, turning what was a simple case of collective action into (an apparent) social conflict.  But, as is characteristic of astroturf movements, Georgi isn’t doing it in an effort to shape society into a form that it finds good and beneficial (as the Jews are, whether you agree with their opinion or not), they’re simply trying to make money.  And they’re willing to deride the Hasidic community if they need to.  In fact, Georgi spokesperson Todd Shapiro told Fox News that they have:

…no intention of resting until their controversial campaign is blasted across the backside of all buses that travel through Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn… Georgi Vodka now plans to drive the billboard through these forbidden areas…

This is a good example of how even protest has been co-opted by marketers.  Our rights as citizens to mobilize can seem ineffectual and trivial when solid efforts, like that of the Hasidic community, are mocked by more powerful organizations.  Further, “non-profit” organizations funded by companies or industries make it difficult to know if any given protest is grassroots or astroturf, such that all activism is suspect.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.