By Vaila Bhaumick

Most of us mere mortals are no strangers to how marketing works, and yet we fall for it. I like to think I have a good moral compass and I want to do some good in the world. Unfortunately, marketing specialists know how to capitalise on this. 

Cause-related marketing emerged in 1983 when American Express launched a campaign advertising that it would donate 1 cent to the Statue of Liberty restoration every time a customer used their card. What happened? Card usage soared! Woke-washing is the modern-day equivalent of cause marketing— the evolved, faster-paced evil twin, prising hard-earned cash from millennials’ wallets.

The Evolution Of Wokewashing

‘Woke’ has become a loaded term, brought into the millennial stratosphere by the Black Lives Matter movement; it has come to mean more than just awareness of injustice. It is a word of action: “stay woke”, a warcry. Critics say that ‘woke’ activism is more about indignation, less about action.

Enter the marketers. The marketing world has a different take on wokedom, daring millennials to put their money where their mouths are. Betting on a different call to action, corporations see dollar signs flying in the face of the do-gooder millennial’s war cries.

Suggested photo: Millennials drinking branded water

Activism Or Capitalism? How Brands Are Preying On Millennials

From multinationals to pride-of-the-nation charities, woke-washing has caught on big time. Razor brand Gillette cut through toxic masculinity in January 2019 with its #metoo-inspired ad, to cries of both gratitude and disdain. The brand alternately accused of “gender-shaming” and applauded for their ‘call to action’, also raised the question: Are millennials really so malleable that a two-minute ad can end cat-calling and in the process persuade you to buy a razor? Gillette claimed the campaign was a success due to ’unprecedented media coverage’, but was it in fact just a good old fashioned publicity stunt?

Beyond publicity stunts, the problem with woke-washing is how the eagerness to appear woke actually supersedes being woke. In the same month of 2019, much-loved UK charity Comic Relief faced a public shaming. Raising money for its gender equality fund required a bit of Girl Power, and so the Spice Girls were enlisted to model t-shirts. Flogging t-shirts for £19.40—manufactured in a Bangladeshi sweatshop where women’s pay is a staggering 35p an hour, and they endure inhuman conditions—doesn’t exactly scream ‘champions of gender equality’! 

With all the criticism surrounding social and political stances, why are companies taking the risk? Well, a staggering 81% of millennials expect brands and corporations to make public declarations on social and environmental change, so they would be foolish not to. And yet, once consumers have that information, they don’t act on it. Only thirty-four percent of consumers in a recent survey said they trust the brands they buy from, meaning, that despite suspicion, we are still supporting them. As much as woke culture has engulfed us all; unfortunately, it appears only to inspire so much action. 

Beyond the horror stories of the sweatshop-generated gender equality t-shirts and the social media brawling, lie some grey areas. It’s often hard to see through branding at times, even if we care enough to research it. The one-for-one shoe company TOMS, generally seen in a good light, has been criticised for making no notable impact on children’s lives and even jeopardising jobs in those countries where they send shoes. Often complexities that exist in other cultures result in misunderstandings, and what corporations deem to be altruistic acts, could indeed have the reverse effect. Parodies like TIMS and Radi-Aid insinuate that companies like TOMS have got it wrong in the developing world by making assumptions and leading us all astray.

Cleaning Up The Woke-Washing Mess

Watching the various parodies poking fun at conscious consumerism is all well and good, but what should we do about woke-washing? As I mentioned earlier, the concept of woke-washing isn’t new, and neither is the scepticism. Cause marketing or consumption philanthropy is a perceived easy-fix to complex problems. It “individualises solutions to collective social problems, distracting our attention and resources away from the neediest causes, the most effective interventions, and the act of critical questioning itself.” Angela M Eikenberry observed in 2009.

Ironically, it’s time to wake up. Business has been and always will be motivated by profit, and any socially-driven ad campaign from multinationals is primarily about money. If any significant and lasting change is to be effected, it is up to both consumers and corporations to act with integrity. Millennials are far more aware than previous generations that they’re being marketed to, and we live in a ‘call-out’ culture that questions credibility. Brands stand more chance of losing that credibility if they don’t live up to the standards they advertise. Likewise, we, the consumers, have a responsibility to question our choices, and whether through comedy, social commentary, art or abstinence, we must act.