Woke washing is when a brand or company uses marketing to take a stance regarding social issues to make a profit. Brands use progressive values in their advertising to get points for being “woke” and build a loyal base of customers.
A study revealed that 81 per cent of millennials expect brands to make a public commitment to their social causes. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick knelt during the American national anthem at the NFL games to protest police brutality and racism. After Nike made Kaepernick the face of their advertisement campaign, the company earned $6 billion. By making their stance regarding peaceful protests and racism clear, they made a large profit.
Is Woke Washing An Issue If It Helps Raise Awareness?
Brands often use marketing to make a stance on a certain topic apparent. But the same brands also partake in activities that are contrary to their message. For example, Nike made an advertisement aimed towards gender equality while also refusing to give maternity leave.
Nike had made Serena Williams the front of their campaign that aimed to challenge the attitude towards women in sports. Then Alysia Montaño, the runner sponsored by Nike revealed that the company did not provide her with paid maternity leave.
Using marketing to take a stance on an issue, but simultaneously contributing to the issue is woke washing. Unilever CEO Alan Jope stated that woke washing is “polluting purpose”, as it takes advantages of issues but does not take actual steps towards betterment.
While raising awareness is an imperative step towards making change, more needs to be done.
What Impactful Change Can Companies Make?
Instead of just making advertisements, the first thing companies should do is address the issues within their company itself. A company can’t preach about equality while enabling a workplace that is sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic, etc.
For example, in 2017, Audi was initially praised for a Super Bowl advertisement that backed equal pay. It was later revealed that out of 14 executives in the company, only 2 were women.
Raising awareness might be a positive step, but it is hypocritical of companies to raise awareness about an issue that is prevalent in their company. The marketing leads consumers to believe that the brand is dedicated to being progressive when that is not the actual case.
Companies need to actively support the cause instead of only raising awareness.
The Johnson Tiles launched the Red Ramp Project, where a ramp was built on a beach in Goa so that disabled people could visit the beach using the ramp. The campaign aimed to display how public places in India should be made disabled-friendly.
After the campaign video was launched, banks, corporates and post-offices reached out to the company to build more ramps. A beach in Chennai and a beach in Gujarat also added ramps to make public spaces more accessible.
The campaign not only raised awareness but also allowed for collaborations that would work towards making public spaces in India more accessible for disabled people. The campaign also had a second phase which aimed towards making navigation in public places easier for the visually impaired.
Terms You Should Know
Several techniques are used by brands to appear more ethical and progressive via marketing. Here are some terms related to such techniques.
- Brand Activism
Brand activism is a company’s effort to promote or direct economic, social, or political reform. Brand activism aims to play a role in social change and serve the communities. The ‘Buy a Lady a Drink’ campaign is an example of effective brand activism. In the campaign, for every limited edition bottle purchased, a months’ worth of clean water was provided for families in developing countries.
Brand activism turns into woke washing when campaigns use issues for a profit without making real change.
Greenwashing refers to using marketing to spread information that misleads people into believing a company is making an effort to safeguard the environment. The company will claim that its products are environmentally friendly. Companies that greenwash tend to exaggerate their claims of being environmentally friendly.
Pinkwashing is the act of using LGBTQ+ issues to get points for being “woke”. The Bank of America sponsored floats at pride parades and is considered to be queer-inclusive. At the same time, it has been sued for anti-LGBTQ discrimination by customers and employees.
While targeting queer people for particular products is not inherently wrong, taking that money and giving it to politicians that are openly anti-LGBTQ+ is an issue.
Views expressed are the author’s own.