If the calls for boycott grow it could cause complications for the event, which is now in the middle of programming its schedule. Many ad agencies and brands have submitted panel proposals as they do every year. The political uproar comes after organizers have dealt with COVID challenges. The event was canceled in 2020. This year, SXSW had to host a scaled-down virtual conference. The 2022 event is slated to be run as a hybrid real-world and digital event.
The Texas legislation, which was green-lit by the Supreme Court on Wednesday, enacts a near-total ban on abortions in the state. Prominent figures such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued public rebukes, saying the Texas law “gutted” the precedent of Roe V. Wade, the landmark ruling that preserved women’s access to reproductive health care. The issue is starting to reverberate through corporate America and the advertising world, which has prided itself on its recent advocacy of equal rights, justice and social awareness.
Dallas-based Match Group, which owns dating app brands such as Tinder and OKCupid, announced Thursday it will set up a fund to support employees impacted by the law. Bumble made a similar move. Match Group CEO Shar Dubey in a memo to employees stated that the company “generally does not take political stands unless it is relevant to our business. But this particular law is so regressive to the cause of women’s rights that I felt compelled to speak publicly about my personal views,” Bloomberg reported.
There is recent precedence for events being moved or canceled due to complaints over state legislation.
MLB moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver this year in response to legislation passed in Georgia that critics say restricts voting access. The NBA for two years delayed using Charlotte as a host city for its All-Star Game as a result of complaints about the state's "bathroom bill" that critics said discriminates against transgender people. The league held the game in the city only after a partial repeal of the law.
“What if SXSW chose to go digital and be in New Mexico, Louisiana or Arkansas or any other neighboring state for a year as a sign of protest, as a large step against this new law. What if all other speakers committed to that,” says Caroline Sinders, a tech researcher and artist who has been active at SXSW for years. In 2016, she spoke at an anti-harassment forum at SXSW, at a time when women journalists faced threats for reporting on video games during the notorious “Gamergate.”
“I’m asking for named action, for intentional action, not just platitudes,” Sinders says. “I understand this will hurt cultural and creative workers in Texas and that breaks my heart. But this is something we ... can do [to] directly impact those in power.”
SXSW, of course, is not nearly as prominent as major sporting events, like all-star games. But the festival is a big deal for the tech, media and entertainment industries, acting as a major brand draw and contributing some $350 million to the local economy in Austin.
“I am very concerned about how this situation will impact an event that I see as a good opportunity for women and other under-represented groups,” says Bobbie Carlton, the founder of Innovation Women, who sits on the advisory board of SXSW Pitch, which is a tech startup conference within the festival. “All too often, these situations devolve into no-win possible for women,” Carlton says. “The stages we need in order to voice our concerns are the ones we’re forced to turn away from because someone politicized our right to make our own decisions about our bodies.”
The conference also has never been known to shy away from the world of social activism and hot political subjects. Mainstream politicians have been a fixture on the speaker circuit. Last year, rising political star Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg attended virtually. Former President George W. Bush spoke remotely. The COVID-19 pandemic led organizers to emphasize themes like public health. And in 2021, many discussions focused on civil rights in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
It's unclear how prominent a subject the Texas abortion bill could become at SXSW in March, and how organizers could highlight women's rights in the festival.
Mignott suggests the best way to make a statement is to stay away. “Our core ethos is ‘welcome home,’ that’s our brand,” she says of her agency. “How can I in good conscience tell clients you can be welcome at home in Texas.”
She called for other leaders to rethink how they conduct business in Texas. “Why is it always women and women of color who have to take the first stand,” Mignott says. “Where are my men in advertising right now. … We need more men, more white men, right now shouting from the rooftops.”