The Dangers of Woke-Washed Advertising

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I’ve read plenty of essays on the impact advertising has had on women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and other minority groups. I’ve even been known to roll my eyes at problematic messaging in woke advertising campaigns.

But now that I’m a marketer myself, I spend a lot of time thinking about the intersection of social issues and my work. Especially woke-washed advertising.

When brands jump on the bandwagon of social justice movements through an advertising campaign without follow-through, they aren’t benign. Nor is it harmless when they oversimplify complex systemic issues in the name of chasing marketing opportunities. This kind of woke-washed marketing undermines both brands and the social movements they purport to support.

I feel like I left the fabulous Katie Martell’s closing keynote at Managing Editor Live 2020, with a fresh perspective on the power of the work we do, and how we can use our influence to make a real difference in the movement toward systemic change — not a woke-washed one.

Here are a few of my favorite takeaways on woke-washed advertising from her talk.

How Diversity Washing Damages Trust

So what is woke advertising? Your organization may be guilty of it if your marketing doesn’t match the social and political reality at your company.

One glaring woke advertising example Katie shared: In 2015, KPMG ran an ad claiming to support women leaders and breaking glass ceilings. It was an inspiring message. After watching it, you might be surprised to find out that KPMG was the subject of a massive class-action lawsuit for discrimination based on sex.

That kind of disconnect between what a company supports publicly and what they actually do quickly erodes trust in the brand once word gets out.

The higher the ethical stakes, the deeper that cut will go. Consumer trust is built on expectations that companies will be competent and behave ethically, Edelman research has consistently found. KPMG’s discrimination harmed a lot of women. Once you know that, the ad not only rings hollow; it drips with hypocrisy.

This is peak performative corporate allyship. And believe me, plenty of consumers can tell the difference between performance and sincerity — and will relentlessly drag you on Twitter for it. Lest you think this is “just SJW Twitter,” consider what’s at stake financially:

  • Women’s buying power and influence affects 83% of U.S. consumption.
  • The LGBTQ+ population controls $3.6 trillion in global buying power.
  • Black Americans control $1.4 trillion in buying power in the U.S.

Losing the trust — and the $$$ — of these communities can make for a very expensive lesson on the dangers of inauthentic social media marketing.

When Woke-Washed Campaigns Undermine the Movement

But wait. It gets worse.

When consumers favor a company based on moral marketing, they expect the company’s actions to align with its brand values. And very often, they don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Citigroup, Google and Amazon all issued statements supporting Black Lives Matter. They also financially supported politicians with an “F” rating from the NAACP, as Katie noted in her presentation.

That means the money a consumer spends with a company, thinking they share the same values, often go toward enabling policies that not only undermine social justice movements and may even put people’s lives at risk.

Woke advertising can also undermine movements toward more subtly, by creating a perception that situations are better than they really are.

Jean Kilbourne famously noted that advertising sells normalcy. Woke-washed marketing often features feel-good ads that minimize the amount of work that remains to be done. Think about posts you may have seen this year on social media featuring police and Black children hugging or playing sports.

It’s a lovely message, but it proposes vague solutions like “love each other” to solve real, life-threatening social problems. These woke advertising campaigns grossly undermine the need for actual systemic change toward true diversity.

Choose Meaningful Action Over Empty Words

As individual marketers, we don’t have complete control over the campaigns we work on, but we can push back against the worst ones. And we can propose authentic alternatives that support real diversity and inclusivity when we see diversity-washed advertising at play.

After all, there’s nothing wrong with admitting you’re a work in progress. When organizations commit to actual change, the brand grows stronger from the inside. And instead of running the same bland messaging everyone else, you have the opportunity to demonstrate real leadership and authentically differentiate your brand from your competitors.

For example, Rent the Runway, bolstered their BLM support statement with a public commitment to sustainable change. Those kinds of actions have a tangible impact on the community and they happen to make for great stories.

That’s how you market for good. And thanks, Katie, now I’m feeling up for the challenge.

Clare Chiappetta serves as editorial coordinator and staff writer, with a specialization in HR and the future of work. She earned a master’s in English from Southeastern Louisiana University, and continues to explore the world through books, films and music. Test your most esoteric pop culture references on her.

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