The Impact of ‘Woke’ Advertising

Abi – Year 12 Student

Editor’s note: Do motives matter? Year 12 student, Abi Boggs explores the morality behind using activism in advertising, raising pertinent questions concerning the recent influx of organisations promoting human rights campaigns to sell products. She highlights the ‘hollow words’ in advertising, drawing on LGBTQ+ representation and the corporate involvement in ‘Pride’ while evaluating the most crucial aspect of ‘woke’ marketing: the moral principles of which companies ought to make it their duty to follow. Julia – Chief Editor, The Scribe

If you have ventured online in the past few years you will likely be aware of the rise in so-called ‘woke’ advertising. For the blissfully unaware, these are adverts which take progressive stances on social issues while promoting certain brands or products. They may tackle subjects such as racial and gender inequality, lack of mental health awareness, and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. They often receive a range of responses: praise, criticism, condemnation. However, what we need is indifference.

On the surface they may appear to be positive messages, if unrelated to the companies funding their production. Gillette tackling toxic masculinity; McDonald’s campaigning for mental health awareness; Oreo fighting against homophobia. But if we evaluate their motivations and the harmful impact of these messages, ‘woke’ advertising is clearly detrimental to the causes it claims to champion. Our first question is what do companies stand to gain by appearing ‘woke?’

The simple answer is profit. Multiple studies have found that brands which present values in line with the views of their consumers receive higher customer loyalty. For example, leading market researchers ‘Harris Interactive’ found that 78% of LGBT+ adults (as well as friends and relatives) would change the products they buy to support openly LGBTQ+ friendly companies. I’m sure this comes as no surprise; many of us like to support companies with similar values to our own. Perhaps you yourself have been swayed by a heartfelt plea or show of solidarity, but the fact remains that these adverts are carefully calculated in order to gain your attention and, ultimately, your money.

Following on from this, which demographics do they hope to target? We all know that advertisers target specific groups of people in order to sell an aspirational lifestyle based around a particular product. In fact many academics have drawn a link between our sense of identity and our behaviour as consumers. We use the brands, products and media we consume to reaffirm our identities. Advertisers have noticed, and contributed to, this mentality. Therefore rather than market to the communities they claim to support, advertisers are targeting the supporters of such movements: tailoring their campaigns to people who self-identify as ‘progressive’ or ‘woke.’ This lucrative approach capitalizes on the energy behind a political movement by presenting a way for consumers to act ‘responsibly’ through a single purchase and affirm their self-image by supporting ‘progressive’ companies. But more than selling the product, they sell the idea of progress and revolution; even down to the opposition.

Naturally any social or political message presented by these companies will receive its fair share of backlash; take the outpouring of hate after Keurig (most known for producing coffee machines) pulled advertising from a Fox News Show. Despite making no official statement or citing the cause, pictures of smashed coffee machines soon flooded the internet and talk of boycotts began to spread. In reality very few people were incensed by Keurig’s actions and the scattered boycotts did nothing to harm their sales.  Nevertheless people rushed to fight back online, defending Keurig for their ‘brave’ and ‘progressive’ stance. The controversy put Keurig centre stage and across the world advertisers sat up and took note. The next time it wasn’t an accident.

Soon other brands got in on the action: Nike, Pepsi, Starbucks. Online the response was the same and the media coverage only grew.  Every video, article, tweet and conversation spread their names further.

Retaliation sells the revolution. It reframes their actions. Instead of merely claiming to support progressive ideas, they are perceived as progressive, forward thinking, strong in the face of opposition. The inevitable backlash convinces consumers that the companies are genuinely pushing for social change as their message appears to be controversial. For conscious consumers, supporting these companies seems to be a responsible choice. However this is a carefully calculated strategy. They target a large movement with energy behind it, produce a vague message affirming the consumer’s opinion, let a vocal minority riot which convinces the public that their message is revolutionary and then they wait for the money to roll in.

Of course it could be argued that this targeting is a fundamental aspect of advertising, but even the messages themselves are harmful. For a clear example we need look no further than the insidious corporate pollution of Pride.

Let’s try a little GCSE compare and contrast. First, signs held by individuals:

‘No pride in genocide’

‘40% of homeless youth are LGBT+’

‘Queer liberation not rainbow capitalism’

Second, corporate billboards:

‘Love is Love’

‘Stop the hate’

‘My gay best friend makes me fabulous by association’

Spot the difference?

Advertisers need to appeal to the widest group possible and therefore it is in their best interests to keep their words empty. Although the corporate slogans are undoubtedly supportive (with the exception of the final quote,) they dilute the political messages of the movement. The fact is that many groups calling for social change often recognise the systemic flaws that facilitate oppression. But corporations profit from this status quo and cannot afford to be truly divisive. Consequently they strip political messages of any power or potential controversy, leaving only hollow promises and empty statements. These adverts and messages take our determination to make change and direct it towards a twisted and empty version of our own ideals. The fact is, gay rights activists aren’t fighting for fabulous. They’re fighting to work without discrimination, to live without harassment, to grow up without abuse. But these hollow words only tell us that ‘love is love.’ They have reduced Pride down to a cute slogan that hides the myriad of battles we are still fighting. Faux-progress convinces us that buying a bag or t-shirt is an act of support: but we can’t buy progress. We can’t put equality on a t-shirt. We can’t allow ourselves to think that supporting a global corporation is the same as campaigning for systemic change.

Essentially, corporations employ superficial, feel-good messages to sell the idea of social progression in a way that appeals to the vast majority of people but which, in reality, undermines and overshadows the voices of the people fighting for change.

So what can we do? As it is, any and all interaction with so called ‘progressive marketing’ undermines true progressive movements and is effectively free advertising for global corporations with no intention of enacting real change. All I would ask is for you to be aware of the ways companies target us as consumers, be informed about their actions in the real world, and be responsible when faced with the choice between convenience and ethical consumption.

Before talking about the advert, talk about the problem. Instead of talking about the problem, solve it.

Abi 934134

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