Woke-washing: how brands are cashing in on the culture wars

From M&Ss LGBT sandwich to Kendall Jenner stopping a riot with a Pepsi can, corporate business is adept at adopting our concerns. But is it all a cynical marketing ploy?

Imagine getting angry over a sandwich. When Marks & Spencer launched its LGBT sandwich basically, your classic BLT with some gay guacamole thrown in I, along with a list of other LGBTQ commentators, was asked by ITVs This Morning if I was offended by the sandwich. I wasnt, and neither were any of the others they asked, so this fixture of daytime television settled on a former associate of David Icke, who proceeded to rant about trans people. How did we arrive at a point where sandwich packaging is debated on daytime TV?


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    Brands are increasingly flirting with the realm of politics. This week, Lacoste announced it would swap its trademark crocodile logo for 10 limited-edition polo shirts featuring a different endangered species instead; it was soon pointed out that the company was offering gloves made from deer leather and cow leather handbags online. When police asked McDonalds to stop selling milkshakes in Edinburgh during a visit by Nigel Farage following the milkshaking of far-right activists Burger King cheekily announced to the people of Scotland that they were selling milkshakes all weekend. But has this fast food giant really joined the anti-fascist resistance?

    You dont have to have digested Karl Marxs Das Kapital to recognise that companies are driven by the profit motive, not changing the world. Butcan advertising ever have an ethical dimension? According to estimates by the New Economics Foundation thinktank a decade ago, the negative consequences of advertising from promoting indebtedness to social and environmental damage meant that for every pound of value generated by an advertising executive, 11 worth was destroyed. I doubt their figures have significantly changed since. When brands flash their support for just causes, arent they cynically preying on your conscience so you will cough up a phenomenon known as woke-washing?

    Marks
    Marks & Spencers LGBT sandwich provoked an online backlash earlier this month Photograph: Publicity Image

    Back in the 80s, when activists succeeded in driving the environment on to the public agenda, the oil company Chevron launched an advertising campaign flaunting its extremely dubious green credentials. It was perhaps the most egregious example of greenwashing: when polluting corporates would use the climate crisis as a PR exercise, showing themselves to be cavorting with wildlife and saving the planet, to deflect from their unsound record, purely so environmentally conscious consumers would keep buying their products. Depressingly, there were signs it worked: polling in California in the aftermath of the campaign suggested people regarded Chevron as the oil giant they trusted most to protect the environment.

    There is no shortage of examples today of profit-driven companies deploying good causes for advertising purposes. Earlier this month in the US, Burger King launched its #FeelYourWay campaign to mark Mental Awareness month, partly trolling its chief competitor, McDonalds Happy Meals, by selling products such as a Blue Meal or a Pissed Meal (because you dont always have to be happy to eat there). The Co-Op, meanwhile, has launched a gender-neutral gingerbread person in the name of inclusion and diversity, asking shoppers to suggest an appropriate name for it.

    But we are not just talking about the culinary world: Gillette notoriously launched an advert inspired by #MeToos challenge to toxic masculinity in January; Colin Kaepernick, a US football player and civil rights activist who sank to his knee rather than sing the national anthem to protest against police racism, became the face of a Nike campaign last September.


     

    Some would argue that if it brings an issue to the publics attention, or helps show mainstream support for the marginalised, does the motive matter? In the case of the sandwich, AKT (formerly the Albert Kennedy Trust) a charity that supports homeless young LGBTQ people will undoubtedly find good use for the 10,000 being donated by M&S. But heres the counter-argument: that this is actually woke-washing or profit-driven companies cynically cashing in on peoples idealism and using progressive-orientated marketing campaigns to deflect questions about their own ethical records. If I was going to be grouchy about M&S, I would suggest that if the retailer is going to use pro-LGBTQ sentiments for commercial purposes, it might donate more money than could be raised by a couple of private citizens doing a sponsored marathon. LGBTQ employees would probably benefit from being paid the real living wage and that it might consider selling the sandwiches in the stores it has proudly opened in gay-hating Saudi Arabia.

    To be fair, there are far more egregious examples than M&S. Earlier this year, Nikes profits soared to $6bn after its Kaepernick ad. The company then launched a campaign fronted by Serena Williams that challenged attitudes towards women. If we show emotion, were called dramatic. If we want to play against men, were nuts, she says over footage of female athletes campaigning for equal pay or demanding to play in exclusively male leagues. All very noble, but with the Nike-sponsored runner Alysia Montao condemning the company this week for not providing her paid maternity leave, the firm might want to look at whether it is treating its own female athletes with basic rights first.

    Nikes
    Nikes ad featuring the American footballer Colin Kaepernick helped boost the companys profits to $6bn. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

    And what of Burger King so laudably combating the stigma of mental distress? Social media users were quick to point out that Burger King employees were unlikely to afford mental health care on their poverty wages and there is an established correlation between financial insecurity and mental distress. In 2017, Audi initially won plaudits for its Super Bowl ad backing equal pay, until a backlash revealed that just two out of the companys 14 executives were women. When Lacoste announced it would swap its trademark crocodile logo for 10 limited-edition polo shirts featuring a different endangered species instead, the journalist Sam Wolfson could hardly resist pointing out this born-again champion of animals was offering gloves made from deer leather and cow leather handbags on its website.


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    Sophie Lewis, chief strategy officer at VMLY&R London, a subsidiary of the global advertising giant, says we should not dismiss the intentions of companies out of hand. Im largely inspired by Emmeline Pankhursts motto of deeds not words. Im a great believer that when brands ostensibly take on a social purpose, they have to be clear about their role and right, and they have to work with integrity and consistency, she says. If a brands commitment extends just to communicating, she argues, rather than considering how it does its own business, it is liable to be caught out. If a brand does manage to do it, then it can be very powerful both as a cultural change agent, but also as a driver of business growth. Because, lets be honest, most businesses exist to make money and grow.

    But surely no company is going to launch an advertising campaign if it thinks it will lose money; therefore, by definition, any social justice-orientated marketing is driven primarily by money, not advancing the cause of human progress. She doesnt disagree, but says very rarely there are exceptions of companies going out of their way to support a specific cause. One is the shoe company TOMS, whose One for One policy means that when you buy a pair of shoes, it donates a pair of shoes to a child in a poor country; it has recently expanded that to water, safer birth services and help for sight impairment. Even this is problematic, though: research shows that the shoes had almost no impact on childrens lives, and that shoe donations were helping to wipe out job-providing industry in Africa. A more clear-cut case is the cosmetics company Lush, which last year launched a courageous advertising campaign highlighting the misconduct of undercover police officers who infiltrated activist groups with the slogans paid to lie and police have crossed the line. There is no commercial gain to be had from such a campaign: in England and Wales last year, 78% of people aged 16 or over had confidence in their local police. Lush passes Lewiss integrity test, too: there are many activists who can vouch for the company run by husband-and-wife duo Mark and Mo Constantine privately donating funds to back good causes without any fanfare.

    Wherever you are in this debate, there is no doubt that Lush is an unrepresentative exception. Woke-washing is not a term Id personally use, says Dan Cullen-Shute, founder of the creative agency Creature of London, which promises brands which have ranged from Carling to the British Red Cross that it can make adverts that real people cant help but care about. Theres an inherent sense of cynicism in that term, that companies are deliberately exploiting people or things to get their message across. Its fair to say that I do not hold advertising in high esteem this is, after all, an industry that all too often encourages lifestyles which badly damage our physical and metal wellbeing but Cullen-Shute is keen to challenge my preconceptions. There are a few cynical people he meets in the sector, he says, but many genuinely want to do good. Take the M&S sandwich. The advertising brains behind it, he says, will have gone home and thought: Ive done a really good thing, Ive persuaded a business to help the visibility of LGBTQ people. Then theyll wake up to see Twitter being superficial and talking it down.

    A
    A screen grab from Gillettes ill-judged toxic masculinity ad. Photograph: YouTube/Gillette

    If you boil it down to its very barest, then, absolutely, advertising is about increasing the value of a brand so the business performs better, he says. But the question is whether that can exist alongside being genuinely good things. Gillettes attack on toxic masculinity was clumsy and inauthentic and forced, and quite rightly leads people to question the value of any of it. Here was a company which spent years arguing that a man couldnt be sexy without a smooth face suddenly takes the high ground on challenging damaging male attitudes. Like Lewis, however, he believes in the power of the consumer to call out companies pushing messages they dont have grounds to push.

    That disconnect between marketing and a companys behaviour is the source of angry frustration for JP Hanson, CEO of Stockholm-based Rouser, which styles itself subversively as an un-agency because of what he describes as its rejection of the pointless posturing that much of modern advertising has been reduced to. He is blunt: If you start by paying pardon my French your fucking tax, then you can do other stuff. He cites Starbucks, which preaches about communities in its advertising. But theyre not paying tax, and if they were, that would go to building communities, schools, hospitals. They must, he says, walk the walk before they talk the talk.

    This is a gripe of mine, too: take Ernst & Young, an accountancy firm that flaunts its LGBTQ credentials. I am not doubting that it is a good place for LGBTQ employees to work: but here is a firm that facilitates tax avoidance on a grand scale at a time when LGBTQ services are being cut on the basis there isnt enough public money to fund them. When they dont clean their own house, Hanson says, it becomes superficial and hollow. However much it contradicts the profit motive, he thinks, a company shouldnt do something to make money, but because it really believes in something.

    Theres something else at play. Todays generational divide in politics is unique: while Margaret Thatchers Tories had a nine point lead over Labour among 18- to 24-year-olds in 1983, Jeremy Corbyns party won a 40-odd lead in the same age group two years ago. From Brexit to Donald Trump, there is a sense among young people that their values are being outvoted: their attitudes on everything from multiculturalism to feminism to LGBTQ rights are markedly more progressive to those of previous generations. That younger people are on one side of a culture war means their anger and sense of disenfranchisement is there to be monetised. The crudest attempt to do this was Pepsis calamitous ad last year, which featured an angry, diverse Resistance crowd of protesters marching to a standoff with the police, until Kendall Jenner defuses the tension by offering an officer a Pepsi. A Saturday Night Live satire in which, minutes before the ad is filmed, a series of phone calls leads the director to realise what a career-ending disaster his supposedly genius idea is, was alas, too late the original advert has clocked more than 6.5m views on YouTube.

    Kendall
    Kendall Jenner appeared with a bunch of photogenic protesters in Pepsis disastrous ad in 2018 Photograph: Brent Lewin/Getty Images for Pepsi

    Whether its LGBT sandwiches in an era where schools in Birmingham are facing protests for teaching LGBTQ rights, or Nike promoting the fight against police brutality in the age of Trump, brands are tapping into this sense of millennial grievance. But theres another danger, too. Clicktivism is a well-documented phenomenon, where people click on an online petition and think that their work is done, without actually having an impact on the world. Couldnt something similar be at work here: buy a LGBT sandwich, feel good about yourself, and it becomes a substitute for fighting the rampant homophobia that still exists in British society, or fighting those LGBTQ services-destroying cuts? If you look at marketing in broad terms as attitudes versus behaviour, says Hanson, the general view is that attitude drives behaviour. Its actually the other way round in psychological behaviour. People will think: If I say I believe in certain things, Ive given the correct answer, and Ive done my bit.

    This could also feed into an illusion of how social change happens: while advertising campaigns have demonstrably helped rake in billions of pounds for big corporates, there is no evidence any have significantly changed the world for the better. As Extinction Rebellion has recently reminded us, progress is achieved through protest and struggle, not well-intentioned sandwiches.

    Whether you think its woke-washing, or companies raising and mainstreaming important issues, this is a phenomenon that is not only here to stay, but will keep on growing. Capitalism has proved its ability to adapt: at a time when so many younger people quite legitimately feel that the economic system doesnt work for them, big business appealing to their sense of idealism is a savvy move. So while I am still not going to get angry about a sandwich, I am not going to start pretending it will change the world, either.

    Original Article : HERE ; The Ultimate Survival Food: The Lost Ways


     
     


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