Between Moral Marketing and Woke Washing

Between Moral Marketing and Woke Washing

Is corporate activism empowering consumers or undermining causes?

Watching the rise of the #MeToo movement has been joyous, overwhelming, and frightening.What started out as a celebrity-backed hashtag led to thousands of victims of sexual harassment and abuse crying out in support of each other and calling out their aggressors, as well as millions of dollars raised towards legal fees of sexual harassment court cases (the Time’s Up campaign, #MeToo’s big sister, is the most successful GoFundMe ever). By way of Twitter and the red carpet, the movement s wept through 2018, clobbering giants such as Harvey Weinstein and Philip Green, and bringing about concrete policy change such as the new up-skirting law in the UK.

The taboo of talking about sexual harassment is being torn up, and with it, outdated and sexist cultural norms are too. But like all good things, the #MeToo movement has a negative flip side, often in the form of sensitive men who cannot fathom their authority being challenged. Business media company Bloomberg has coined the term the ‘Pence Effect’, for example, to reference businessmen who, afraid of being seen as harassers, have chosen to avoid women altogether. So it will be interesting to observe the movement grow during 2019, and as it turns over more and more antiquated stones, to watch the sexist bugs crawl out from underneath them.

The first ‘scandal’ of 2019 (if it can even be called that) was the new Gillette advert. Gillette made a bold statement to rebrand their potentially polemic slogan ‘The Best a Man Can Get’ to ‘The Best a Man Can Be’, and it riled up a swathe of sensitive meninists. This caused the BBC and other news sources to report more heavily on the backlash than on the actual advert. Piers Morgan has weighed in, of course slating the advert as “man-hating”. Personally, I got goosebumps watching it. It is a powerful and touching piece. But Gillette aren’t just making short films in the name of activism – they are selling products, and as consumers we need to be conscious of this new trend of brands using cultural and social movements as advertising fodder, and what it means.

The Gillette advert can be read in one of two ways. It can be understood as a positive sign of changing times, when companies are supporting the causes their customers and employees care about, and using their income to promote worthy causes. On the other hand, Gillette may simply be jumping on the #MeToo bandwagon without really committing to the cause, something which has been given the neat title of ‘woke washing’.

A recent example of misguided bandwagon psychology in advertising is Pepsi’s marketing of 2017. Remember when Kendall Jenner ended racism with a can of soda? The outrage from the public was so strong that the ad was taken down in twenty-four hours. PepsiCo recycled imagery and ham-handedly mistranslated identity politics from the Black Lives Matter movement when it was at its peak, trivialising the iconic image of Ieshia Evans approaching riot police. Watching it back now is excruciating. It completely wallpapers over the issues at the heart of the protests, and instead chooses to flaunt banners for ‘world peace’. Instead of promoting their product, Pepsi seriously damaged their image. Maybe if Pepsi had shown outright support for the Black Lives Matter movement, rather than pussy-footing around it, it would have been a different story.

The line between appropriation and solidarity is slim. It’s important that companies be held accountable for the views that they profess in order to shift products – they can’t sell us the cake and eat it too. Let’s consider the Chick-fil-A scandals. The fast food chain has been branded homophobic after CEO Dan Cathy publicly stated that he is against same-sex marriage, and the charitable organisation under the Chick-fil-A name was found to have given billions of dollars to anti-LGBT+ organisations. Although the backlash on social media was huge, and many Americans still boycott the company as a result, their sales actually increased by 12% in the period directly following the scandal, according to the Huffington Post. They have since attempted to move away from politics, but Cathy has not retracted his belief in the “biblical definition of the family unit”. The company continues to grow.

In a way, what Chick-fil-A and Gillette have done isn’t that dissimilar. Say what you want about a lack of progressiveness and the isolation of their target market, but by openly stating the beliefs behind the corporation, Chick-fil-A have found solidarity with customers whose beliefs do align with their own. Besides, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I wouldn’t want to spend my money on a company that donates to these charities – I’m glad they are open about their spending, because it enables me to make a conscious decision to get my fried chicken somewhere else.

Is financial backing the deciding factor between moral marketing and woke washing? Gillette gave $3 million to charities such as the Boys and Girls Club of America, an organisation providing after-school clubs for children. An excellent cause I’m sure, but not one that really tackles the issues at the heart of #MeToo, not to mention that these donations won’t have made a particularly significant dent in Gillette’s annual profits. Besides, many women will testify that Gillette’s razors for women, which are pink and have names like Venus and Miss Soleil, are more expensive than their men’s razors. Surely if they were truly active in the #MeToo debate, they would also be working on diminishing the pink tax?

Encouragingly, sincerity and dedication to a cause seem to be the best ways to keep consumers coming back. Studies show that if brands want to successfully use corporate activism to promote a product, they have to be willing to commit. They cannot change their image if the public don’t believe they mean it. Which is good news for us, as consumers, and great news for the causes on which they choose to piggy-back their marketing.

What we can definitely understand from the Gillette ad is that the #MeToo movement is going strong. If a corporate giant like Procter & Gamble deems #MeToo fashionable enough to be profitable, we are doing something right. And in a time when social issues are widespread and mainstream, we can’t be surprised that companies are looking to supply our demand for the products we believe in. Big corporations have the responsibility to align themselves with causes that their management genuinely believes in, and to be prepared to back them in order to garner our support and resulting investment. Our responsibility, as consumers, is to use our purchasing power in an ethical way. Boycott companies you don’t agree with, and spend your money on companies that support your beliefs. Whether we like it or not, corporate activism is happening, and we can either whine about it or use it against companies who try –and fail – to exploit us.

This article was originally published in Issue 723 of Pi Magazine.

Illustration by Lauren Faulkner