In recent times, a new term has surfaced in the world of advertising: woke-washing. This phenomenon occurs when ethically problematic companies use social justice movements to increase sales without addressing how their business is complicit in perpetuating the very injustices they claim to care about. In other words, they use social justice as a marketing tool, without truly embodying the values they claim to support. Think: the brand equivalent of virtue-signalling.
While companies are falling over themselves to be seen as socially conscious and progressive, it's quite clear that this is all just a calculated front. There are multiple tactics these big brands use as faux activism for financial gain, whether it be an unsympathetic black square on a brand’s Instagram page or a rainbow themed logo during the LGBTQIA awareness month. Brands use these as shortcuts to jump onto the “woke-wagon” without actually putting in the necessary work to make their companies more diverse and inclusive, which ultimately renders their actions meaningless.
There is no shortage of examples when it comes to profit-driven companies using good causes for promotional purposes. In 2017, Pepsi faced backlash for an ad featuring Kendall Jenner that seemed to trivialise the Black Lives Matter movement and in 2019, Gillette's "The Best a Man Can Be" campaign, which attempted to address toxic masculinity, was criticised for being an insincere attempt to cash in on the #MeToo movement without any significant action behind it. These are just a few instances where companies have been called out for using social justice as a marketing ploy without making any real effort to support or uplift the communities they claim to care about.
Individuals are often pressured by online trends. The urge to be a part of the conversation results in many of them not taking enough time to fully educate themselves on such complex topics, and as a result, woke-washing continues as a vicious cycle. Corporations hold a greater responsibility in this space due to their potential impact on entire communities.
While woke-washing is still relatively new to the mainstream conversation, it’s the start of what should be a larger conversation about holding brands accountable for adhering to their publicly stated values through their actions. Consumers demanding authenticity and ethical practices from the brands they support, is a crucial step in the right direction towards achieving genuine progress on issues related to diversity and inclusion. As consumers, we have the power to demand genuine change from the brands we support, so let’s exercise that power to encourage positive social impact.