Ideas·Ideas Afternoon

Woke Washing: the problem with 'branding' social movements

Since the invention of public relations, companies have championed progressive values as a way to sell their products. Some call this tactic brilliant PR. Others call it 'woke washing,' arguing that these companies are merely adopting the veneer of progressive values for profit or to sanitize unsavoury business practices. This episode explores the complex relationship between branding and social activism.

In the early 20th century companies co-opted feminism to sell products

Nike’s 2019 'Dream Crazier' advertisement featuring Serena Williams and many other prominent female athletes. Some critics argue there's a disconnect between the message behind Nike's ads and their company practices. (Nike)

** This broadcast originally aired on June 12, 2019.

Can we shop our way to gender equality? Brands like Dove and Gillette would certainly have us think so. Advertising campaigns tell us that women can be empowered by everything from the soap they use to the tampons they buy.

Some call this brilliant PR and commend these companies for taking a stand. Others call it 'woke washing,' arguing that companies adopt the veneer of progressive values for profit, or to sanitize unsavoury business practices. 

Co-opting Women's Rights

Since the invention of public relations in the early twentieth century, companies have attached themselves to social movements, especially feminism, to sell products. That practice can be traced to Edward Bernays who's often been called the 'father of public relations'. As the nephew of Sigmund Freud, he knew that appealing to our emotions and unconscious desires would be a more successful sales tactic than tapping into our faculties of reason.

Bernays famously helped the American Tobacco Company co-opt women's rights to sell them cigarettes by staging a demonstration by debutantes at the 1929 Easter parade in New York. Back then, there was a major taboo against women smoking, so the company branded cigarettes as 'torches of freedom,' attaching their campaign to the Suffragette movement.

Smoking became an act of rebellion against the strictures men placed on women. American women had won the right to vote in 1919 and if they could vote, so the logic of the publicity stunt went, they could smoke. 

(Lucky Strike Cigarette Ad, 1929 )

Same Tactics, New Era 

The tactic of co-opting activism has a long history, and has evolved over the years as consumerism has become a larger part of our economy and the way we define our identities. Today, companies are increasingly adopting social causes in their branding as a way to stand out from their competitors and to secure a positive image for themselves. 

Nike has been especially effective at this approach. They have produced a series of advertisements that tackle gender inequality, racial inequality, and LGBTQ rights

On the surface, these ad campaigns are difficult to criticize: who'd want to say something negative about a company that's taking a stand on progressive issues like women's inequality, or the barriers women have faced in sport?

Nike's "Dream Crazier" ad featuring Serena Williams repositions the word 'crazy', a pejorative word often used to describe women, to showcase the barriers women have faced in sport, and culminates with the message: "So if they want to call you crazy, fine. Show them what crazy can do."

But others contend that Nike may be 'woke washing,' that there's a disconnect between the message of their ads and their company's practices.

A recent New York Times op-ed by former Nike-sponsored runner, Alysia Montaño, asserts that it is hypocritical of Nike to brand themselves as bastions of women's equality when they do not offer paid maternity leave to female athletes.

Elite female runners talk about the tolls that motherhood took on their careers and bodies and how financial pressures forced them to resume competing before they were physically ready.

Dark political times

Dr. Genevieve LeBaron, who co-wrote the book Protest Inc.: The Corporatization of Activism, suggests that there is a vacuum in the current political context where people are starved for a hopeful or progressive message. In this environment, perhaps there is something courageous about companies taking a stand on polarizing political issues, when they could simply say nothing.

"Nike is still under huge fire from activists for the treatment of workers in its factories. It's interesting that many of them are also women and girls who are working in Nike suppliers around the world for what many critics are saying are dismally low wages with important restrictions on their freedom of movement and facing gender based violence," LeBaron says. 

"Arguably, if Nike wanted to make a difference to women and girls, it could start with the workers in its supply chain," she adds.

The idea of being 'woke,' suggests that one is awake, and sees the injustices in the world. But is it enough just to be 'woke'? The powerful and often controversial messages of these ads can obscure larger truths about the way many transnational corporations are run. 

Guests in this episode:

  • Genevieve LeBaron is a professor of politics and co-director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI).
  • Richard Gunderman is a professor at Indiana University in medicine, liberal Arts and philanthropy. 
  • Dexter Nyuurnibe is a journalist and mental health advocate. 
  • Erik Gregory is a psychologist and the resident therapist for the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. 
  • Jessica Vredenburg is a senior lecturer in marketing at Auckland University of Technology.

Advertisements featured in this episode: 

Further reading and more on the topic: 

***This episode was produced by Maggie Reid and Greg Kelly. 


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