The Rise of “woke” Companies

Written by James Ramsay

In January 2019, Gillette released the now infamous ad: “The best a man can be”. This two-minute video came in the wake of the me-too movement and depicted various traits of ‘toxic masculinity’, asking whether or not this was the best men could be. The ad was received by immediate controversy, with many saying the ad was pandering and preachy. On the flip side, many were praising it for sparking a conversation on this issue. Everyone, it seems, was missing the point. This was not a video essay on toxic masculinity, nor was it a call to arms against the patriarchy. It was an advert. An advert for a company attempting to make money.

The bizarre thing about the reactions to the ad, both positive and negative, was that they seemed to talk about Gillette as though it were a person with its own political opinions. Instead, these things tend to make more sense when you see every decision made by a company as an attempt to make money. This advert was not put out because Gillette had a burning passion for social justice that they felt they had to share with the world. Instead, Gillette saw the emerging trend of ‘woke-ness’ and decided to capitalise on it. They didn’t care about ‘sparking a conversation’, they cared about their profits.

Whether or not this particular ad was profitable in the long run is questionable, but also beside the point in many ways. Gillette intended to make money. Regardless of whether this instance was a miscalculation on their part, their motives were crystal clear. If they had thought that this advert would lose them sales, they certainly would not have run it.

The trend of using social justice issues for marketing is not a new one. Many will have noticed the recent surge in companies using events such as ‘pride’ as a marketing tool. These companies were noticeably absent during the struggles that many LGBT+ groups faced when campaigning for issues such as gay marriage, but these corporations are more than happy to jump on the bandwagon now and reap the rewards. Before equal marriage was legalised, a public backlash against a company at pride could risk the loss of profits. These days, Gay pride can be commodified with a far lower risk of backlash. This has lead to many bizarre scenes. Noticeably, Lockheed Martin (the arms dealers) attended pride. This has provided much comfort to those being killed with their weapons, whose fear of death from above was undoubtedly only matched by the fear that the bomb that killed them was made by someone who didn’t support gay rights.

In our zeal for celebrating the hard-earned civil rights that many have fought for, we risk mistaking these public displays, such as attending pride, as meaningful statements from companies. Instead, what we see is the concoction of a PR team, deciding how best to enhance their business’ image. When we celebrate, or even discuss, corporate involvement in social issues, we risk playing right into their hands. We end up giving the company more attention, more traffic driven to their website, more sales.

This trend goes far deeper than just social justice campaigns, and in a sense has its origins in the way that culture and businesses interact with each other in a capitalist society. Companies are influenced by the trends in popular culture of their time, and tailor their marketing likewise. For the most part, companies will mirror what they see to be prevailing cultural themes with their marketing. Advertising from the 1950s is, as you would expect, far more focused on the traditional values of that time, than advertising from more recent years.

While culture influences the decisions of businesses, the inverse is also true. Films, TV shows and even ads make up a significant part of our culture, and therefore have significant influence over it. While production companies may initially have picked up “woke culture” because they saw it is a prevailing trend, by emphasising this message via various forms of media, it has been cemented further into our culture. In this sense, the interaction between corporate media and culture is a feedback loop; cultural trends influence businesses who produce media based on this, which then goes on to influence the culture.

However, it is due to this cultural interaction that some argue we should actively engage with corporate discussion of social issues, even if it means playing right into their hands and giving them sales. How we change our culture is by interacting with the forms of media that we approve and disapprove of. When US fast food restaurant ‘Chick-fil-a’ came under fire for donating to homophobic organisations, there was a backlash, and ‘Chick-fil-a’ have recently had to back down, presumably fearing loss of profits. It could be suggested that this kind of interaction, in which we support a company that presents views we like, and condemn any that present views we disdain, can be a method of social change.

However, the idea that we should have to play right into the hands of our consumerist culture and ‘vote with our wallet’ is not entirely convincing. If you can afford to boycott a consumer whose views and practices you disdain, then by all means do so. However celebrating a company for parroting the newest woke phrase does nothing but keep up the ridiculous charade, and reward the company for their pandering.

The one positive of all this is that it has forced us to realise the absurdity of the situation that our current capitalist society has resulted in. We have clothing companies proudly displaying the gay pride flag on garments made in sweatshops. Companies assure us that they treat all individuals equally, regardless of identity, whilst simultaneously paying employees as little as possible, and in poor working conditions. The solace we should presumably take in this is that no matter your race, identity or sexuality, there will always be a company to screw you over.

About the author

James Ramsay

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