InScope: Brands and advertisers ‘staying woke’

Courtney Doddridge is a Social Insights Executive for OMD Insights, using social intelligence to identify consumer behaviour to inform a range of data-lead solutions.

Teens are early adopters of new slang, often leaving older generations scratching their heads when they throw arounds words like ‘lit’, ‘squad’ and ‘yeet’. With pop culture ever-evolving, terminology and vernacular changes daily, and it can be hard to keep up. A popular term with teens right now is ‘woke’. Commonly used on social media, ‘woke’ can be defined as being aware of politics and social injustices that affect the wider community.

What teens might not be aware of is the cultural connection, and historical significance, behind the term. ‘Woke’ had been a part of the African American culture for decades, and became widespread after the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2014. The term has become embedded in mainstream culture with Childish Gambino’s 2016 track ‘Redbone’ featuring the lyrics ‘stay woke’, and was also added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017.

As a result, we’re now seeing the emergence of what the internet has coined ‘woke advertising’ which has been on the rise since 2017.

Companies and brands using woke advertising address social issues and promote beliefs and values, as opposed to traditional advertising which would promote products or services. Brands aim to use their corporate power and influence to start movements about what consumers care about, be it environmental, political or social. Scott Galloway, business founder and professor at New York University School of Business claims “the ‘woke’ business strategy will be a big theme in 2019, as that’s where the money is”. Brands aim to use advertising for good as they attempt to authentically align with issues and encourage social movements. Consumers want brands to stand for something and reflect their personal values with 73% of Millennials and 72% of Gen Z willing to pay extra for products that align with their belief system.

Whilst this purpose driven marketing is set to mirror consumers’ values in an attempt to make a positive difference, ‘woke washing’ can leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. Consumers’ question the intention behind brands using values for profit. There is a belief that their alignment is inauthentic, and brands are simply jumping on the bandwagon. Despite woke advertising addressing social issues, the end goal remains the same, and that is to sell products.

One notable campaign that saw negative backlash was Reebok’s #BeMoreHuman campaign which aimed to empower women with a range of diverse celebrities, athletes, leaders and change makers. An image from the campaign, starring Danai Guira, generated negative publicity with accompanying text “we have to make our shoulders strong enough for somebody else to stand on”. Users believed that the quote draws on historical links with slavery, claiming that African American women are “constantly asked to build up and help others… without reciprocation, recognition or even gratitude.”

Woke advertising and campaigns have the power to completely divide audiences.

The Nike campaign ‘Dream Crazy’ released in September 2018 was one of the most talked-about and controversial, and hugely successful campaigns in recent years. Starring sport stars Serena Williams and Lacey Baker, the campaign aimed to encourage and inspire people to dream bigger. The most controversial sports figure to star in the campaign was former NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, after he inspired nationwide protests against police brutality by kneeling for the US national anthem. Also named brand ambassador for Nike, Kaepernick saw criticism from President Trump and the NFL establishment after refusing to rise.

The campaign divided audiences as a result, with young people praising Nike for their stance against police violence, whilst nationalists, Trump supporters and a section of NFL fans were outraged, resulting in the trending hashtag #BoycottNike.

Proctor & Gamble is another company attempting to position itself amongst the social movement to connect with consumers. Their campaigns ‘The Talk’, ‘#LikeAGirl’ and more recently Gillette’s ‘The Best a Man Can Be’ have all divided public opinion with their controversial social movements.

Gillette launched ‘The Best a Man Can Get ‘ in January 2019, generating significant buzz with the controversial ad challenging toxic masculinity. The ad comes post the #MeToo movement and challenges the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude as it encourages men to hold each other accountable for toxic behavior.

The ad split the internet in half with OMD Insight’s Social Listening & Intelligence report revealing positive and negative sentiment split nearly 50/50. Users praised Gillette for calling out bad behaviour and supporting women, whilst others thought masculinity was under attack and implicated that all men are toxic, resulting in boycott.

Consumers want brands to stand for something by sparking dialogue about issues and concerns that people care about. The issue with woke advertising is that not all consumers hold the same principles therefore, it’s possible that it will cause fall out amongst some consumers. It can be a risk due to the divisive nature of woke advertising but it’s considered a huge win when executed successfully and mirrors consumers’ beliefs and values. A successful campaign addresses social issues at the heart of company culture. It focuses on authentically promoting the issue embedded into the brand ethos, rather than just winning positive sentiment. Brands run the risk of campaigns being labelled as ‘woke washed’ if they don’t genuinely believe in the social movement at hand.

With woke advertising set to take trend this year, it’s important that brands learn from the mistakes of other campaigns, like Reebok’s. Advertisers need to foster an authentic connection between their brands and social movements by putting the cause ahead of the bottom line. Without doing this, the campaign can generate negative buzz. However, a good execution can make a powerful impact on consumers as well as society, and can really drive change in the community.

And before you disregard your teenager’s new word of the week, just think that it could possibly be the next big thing in advertising.

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