In recent years, we’ve seen company after company follow in the footsteps of Dove’s wildly successful “Real Beauty” campaign. The video that sparked it all was their “Evolution” commercial which featured a model walking in front of the camera, getting primped by a makeup team, posing, and then all the photoshop required to make her look as beautiful as possible. In the final product, she looks notably different than when she first walked on set. This commercial inspired many others of its kind, including Always’ “#LikeAGirl” series, CoverGirl’s “Girls Can”, and of course the trainwreck Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial which suffered major backlash.
The draw of these campaigns is their relatability. Viewers see themselves represented and it promotes a feeling of change.
Brands are moving away from simply convincing people that their product is the best on the market, and instead have begun to take a stand on the social issues their consumers care about. This is called “wokenomics.” Being “woke” is generally defined as “staying aware, conscious, and educated.” For the average person, this translates to being knowledgeable about social issues, keeping tabs on what’s happening within the government, and taking a stance on advocacy.
When a large business does it, it’s often in the form of a shareable, emotional commercial… but then what’s next? Is that all the substance given? Are these companies putting their money where their marketing is or are they just pretending to be champions for change? And, most importantly, how have they affected the culture?
Recently ads have become increasingly more controversial. Companies are taking a stance on specific political and cultural issues much to the praise and dismay of consumers. Eliza Williams, Managing Editor of Creative Review, spoke on the trend saying, “By being bold and divisive and taking on a subject they knew would be politically conflicted, it’s become the gold standard.” This is for good reason. According to AdWeek, 73% of Millennials and 72% of Gen Z are willing to pay extra for products that align with their belief system. Both generations are target demographics for companies and they each tend to be more liberal than their previous peers.
Alissa Quart of The Guardian wrote, “The coveted demographic that has the dollars to spend on high-end products is increasingly clustered in the bluest American cities such as New York and San Francisco. In the past two decades, both capital and income have drifted there. If the Democratic party has changed, now circling around the professional classes and the very rich, the rise of Democratic consumer dollars is part of this shift, and these ads appear to be catering to it.”
Market researchers know how caustic and tribalistic the current American political climate is and they play into it.
As seen with Nike’s Colin Kaepernick “Just Do It” campaign, it sparks not only debate, but a profound schism across both the conservative and liberal spectrums. Users all over the Twitterverse voiced their concerns. Some burned their Nike gear while others laughed and poked fun. The end result? Nike got much more press, a new wave of buyers, and a memorable campaign. Nothing was done to stop police brutality and Kaepernick has yet to be signed with any team.
What makes this marketing stunt all the more insidious though, is the company’s blatant hypocrisy. Over the last eight years, Nike has donated almost $1.5 million to the GOP who have outspokenly opposed Kaepernick. On top of this, Nike has been accused of using sweatshops to create their shoes and has several lawsuits against them for racial and gender discrimination. The New York Times has also reported that Nike’s work environment is toxic for women. So much for standing up for what you believe in!
Nike, of course, isn’t the only company that hasn’t been consistent with their message. New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft was recently accused of involvement in a human trafficking case. Nine years ago, the Kraft Group signed an extension with Gillette to secure name and sponsorship rights until the year 2031. Though their deal may have been appropriate at the time, in the wake of their “The Best a Man Can Be” commercial — a stance for the #MeToo movement — it’s become problematic.
In spite of these major shortcomings, corporations are making some progress. P&G, the parent company of both Gillette and Always, have four women on their executive board. Additionally, they’ve been ranked 22nd in Forbes’ list of the best employers for diversity. Last year Always started the #EndPeriodPoverty campaign in which they donated over 1 million pads to young girls, and Gillette has partnered with TerraCycle to create a program where buyers can send their used razors back to have them recycled.
For the most part, the benefits of companies taking a stance lay exclusively within themselves. They’ll get press regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, the group they side with will give them money, and they don’t have to affect any actual change.
This type of marketing is simply a trend. Whenever the target demographic changes their values, so will the campaign. The consumers are left with a false sense of progress and political involvement.
Rather than praising corporations for a new coat of socially conscious paint, customers should support the causes relative to their morals. Values need to be put into actions like donating, volunteering, and advocacy. If these companies want to contribute to the world around them in a meaningful way, they should hire more qualified women and minorities, close the pay gap, and provide livable wages.
At the end of the day, the bottom line is that companies want profit. And by appealing to our beloved values, they’ll get it. It’s up to us to determine whom or what to support. Don’t just follow to follow. Take a stand… no matter what.
Johanie Martinez-Cools is a blogger, writer, and editor. She loves writing about life lessons and mental health. She reads a diverse array of books including The Queen of Water, Who Fears Death, and Persepolis.