Progressive social media activism movements that urge consumers to use their spending power to influence politics have taken off: They’e gotten hundreds of companies to stop advertising on sites such as Breitbart, pushed companies to drop Ivanka Trump’s products, and pressured CEOs to drop off of advisory boards to the president. But looking to the 2018 midterm elections and beyond, these groups are faced with a new question: Now that they’ve got the left’s attention, what are they going to do with it?
Donald Trump’s presidency has boosted Democratic energy in several ways, including in political fundraising, voter enthusiasm, and a record number of women running for political office. It’s also shown up in movements such as #GrabYourWallet, which organizes boycotts of companies tied to Trump, and Sleeping Giants, which alerts companies when their ads show up on websites that promote bigotry, sexism, and racism.
Both movements have some pretty significant successes to their names. #GrabYourWallet contributed to multiple companies dropping products sold by President Trump or his daughter Ivanka Trump, including Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. It may also have been a factor in Ivanka’s decision to shutter her eponymous brand this year — or at least the movement’s founder, 46-year-old California marketer Shannon Coulter, claimed victory when it happened.
This is people power at work. This is you using your voices and your hard earned money to push back on extremism. This is you saying no to the hate that the Trump administration embodies. You are #GrabYourWallet and this is your win.— Shannon Coulter (@shannoncoulter) July 24, 2018
Sleeping Giants got hundreds of brands to block their ads from appearing on the right-wing website Breitbart. The people behind the account were anonymous until the conservative website the Daily Caller identified San Francisco freelance copywriter Matt Rivitz as its creator against his wishes. He runs the account with another freelance copywriter and marketing consultant, Nandini Jammi.
Neither Coulter nor Rivitz consider the movements they’ve created particularly partisan — Coulter says her activism has been aimed squarely at Trump, and Rivitz on combating misogyny, racism, and bigotry. But the pair have earned themselves big platforms, and they’re weighing how to use them in the 2018 midterms and beyond.
#GrabYourWallet is jumping in with a fundraising campaign to support candidates and one of its own new initiatives. Coulter has also started a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization — the same setup as the Democratic Socialists of America, Americans for Prosperity, and the National Rifle Association — and considering launching a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Sleeping Giants, however, is still weighing the options. While they’ve been embraced by the left, where the group’s movement is headed politically is unclear.
“No one wrote any book on how to do this,” Rivitz said. “Never before could you start something like this on a phone and organize the people the way we’ve done it.”
#GrabYourWallet becomes #GrabYourBallot
Coulter started #GrabYourWallet in October 2016, before the election, with an almost off-the-cuff tweet saying consumers should avoid shopping at stores that carried Ivanka Trump’s brand.
After the election, the movement and the hashtag took off, and Coulter and another woman she met on Twitter, Sue Atencio, created a spreadsheet of a list of companies carrying Trump products for boycott. More than a dozen companies severed ties with the Trump family, including Jet, Carnival Cruise, and Nordstrom.
The team has also set its sights on harnessing its voice in other ways, such as encouraging Twitter to permanently ban conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and shaming companies such as Uber, Tesla, and Disney over their chief executives’ participation in advisory forums to Trump.
At the beginning of October, Coulter took the movement into political fundraising with #GrabYourBallot, a donation campaign on the progressive fundraising platform ActBlue.
“It’s very clear that we’re at a cultural inflection point, and women in particular are very fired up right now,” she told me. “It’s really important that we turn the anger that we’re feeling right now into political victory, to use that momentum of that anger to change things for real.”
#GrabYourBallot is raising money for nearly three dozen Democratic candidates in especially tight races in the 2018 midterms, including Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and California House candidates Josh Harder, Andrew Janz, and Katie Hill. It added Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota to its list after she decided to vote against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and her Republican opponent, Kevin Cramer, called #MeToo a “movement toward victimization.”
Donations are being split among the candidates as well as the Grab Your Wallet Alliance, the 501(c)(4) Coulter has created as a “rapid-response army for people who want to continue to use their economic power for promoting inclusion and respect,” as she put it. People donating to #GrabYourBallot can choose to opt out of donating to the alliance, she added.
Thus far, about 1,200 donors have given to the campaign, and it’s raised more than $180,000 of its $300,000 goal.
“These Democratic candidates represent the best hope for pushing back on the Trump administration right now,” Coulter said.
She’s also in the fundraising process for creating a nonprofit, though it’s not clear what shape that will take. She talked about potentially focusing on ways to reduce workplace sexual harassment or, more along the lines of what #GrabYourWallet has been doing thus far, providing consumers with information to help them decide where to spend.
“I’m realistic about the percentage of US consumers who will ever want to spend in strictly ethical ways,” she said. “There is a large and growing percentage of people who want to do that, and what we end up doing for those people will end up being helpful.”
For Sleeping Giants, this wasn’t supposed to be a public endeavor
While Coulter has been out in front of the #GrabYourWallet movement from the get-go, for Rivitz at Sleeping Giants, that hasn’t been the case: He was forced to go public when the Daily Caller revealed his identity in July.
It’s something that still bothers him. “I had my address and my kids’ names splashed all over the internet within 30 minutes of that article coming out,” he said. “I don’t think that should happen for anyone; I don’t care what their political beliefs are.”
But now that he and Jammi have been outed, they’re continuing with their work — they were profiled by outlets such as the New York Times and Recode, and their Twitter account has more than 200,000 followers, giving them a platform to speak out. They have convinced more than 4,000 companies to pull their ads from Breitbart and have also engaged in campaigns aimed at Fox News, Bill O’Reilly, and Robert Mercer.
Democrats have embraced them — Rivitz recently appeared on the liberal podcast Pod Save America — but the team isn’t so sure they want to step into the political fray.
“We’re probably going to be doing the work we’ve always been doing, which is just keeping an eye out for big media platforms tilting toward racism and bigotry,” Rivitz said. “It’s been said that we’re a political campaign, and we don’t think of ourselves as that. We’re really focused on the racism and misogyny part.”
He acknowledged that most of Sleeping Giants’ followers are on the left, but clarified it “just so happens that a lot of the media outlets that have been espousing this bigotry basically have been selling themselves as conservative outlets.”
That’s not to say Sleeping Giants does not have aspirations beyond getting companies to make sure they’re not running inadvertent Breitbart ads. Rivitz said he’s interested in getting more deeply involved in advertiser and corporate responsibility and helping companies understand programmatic ad buying and make better choices.
“People are increasingly going to consumer companies as a way to get themselves heard. I think that’s because that’s ultimately the power we have as individuals,” Rivitz said. “We have our votes and we can use those every couple of years, and we have our money.”
#GrabYourWallet and Sleeping Giants are running plays for a playbook that doesn’t yet exist
Coulter and Rivitz have come to know each other and have developed a sort of camaraderie. She told me he sits on the board of her 501(c)(4), and he told me they speak often because there’s “no one else to talk to” about what they’re trying to do.
“It just helps to share ideas sometimes,” Rivitz said.
That this is a relatively new phenomenon might explain why Coulter and Rivitz, at least right now, appear to be going in such different directions with their initiatives. Boycotts and consumer movements have existed for decades; social media and hashtags that propel them have not.
#GrabYourWallet has also managed to ride another political wave: the increased energy among women, especially on the left. Women hold an enormous amount of purchasing power, and in the wake of Trump’s election and the era of #MeToo, they’re politically and socially engaged as well.
“Women are willing to be more public and vocal about their lives and to push more aggressively for hard power, and they’re starting to understand, on a visceral level, that if they don’t do these things, this will keep happening,” Coulter said, pointing to Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court despite credible allegations of sexual assault and misconduct against him (which he denies).
Both #GrabYourWallet and Sleeping Giants are still trying to figure out exactly what to do with the energy behind them. They’ve shown they can make a difference, but like so many new organizations, especially those that have come to prominence since the 2016 election, the right next step is not always clear.