Every day we see so many brands that are beyond their products. These great brands get to become great brands because of the advertising that sets them apart. Most of us know that consumerism is the core of capitalism and as postmodern consumers, we have tried to satiate this need to be responsible with our materialistic greed. I’ll make this simpler for you—as a consumer, I want a soap that isn’t merely a soap, but is redefining beauty standards, a razor that redefines what being a man is, a cigarette but also a torch of freedom, and so much more with a hint of social awareness.

This has not been a problem for the longest time, because it is imperative for media to intersect with societal norms and use them to make products more relatable in our daily lives. It was a rather optimistic beginning to identify cues that are problematic and help the media landscape make the world a better place. Now, the problem with the world is that it has too many problems. I have 99 problems and good marketing would never be one of them. However, this new wave of political radicalism and woke capitalism in advertisements makes me physically cringe. Apart from being severely exploitative and cringeworthy, it also is lazy and lethargic.

How Woke Advertising Exploits Social Issues

Pride Day and Women’s Day are not days to celebrate your individuality, but just a busy month on the social media calendar. In 2019, Listerine (our regular mouthwash—Listerine) launched a rainbow-colored packing for the mouthwash bottle. It had some irrelevant words like nature, sunshine, and harmony written on it, and the label said “Care with Pride.” Twitter has been the most intense platform to run the test of wokeness and sadly, Listerine failed.

Pepsi has a record of trivializing protests and strikes. A very controversial Pepsi ad showed something even a ten-year-old would have rejected. Kendall Jenner handed a Pepsi to a cop to extend an olive branch at the BLM protest. Not only is the ad tone-deaf, but also extremely disrespectful to the entire movement. In 2015, an Indian Pepsi ad depicted a hunger strike by students that ended when one student drank the “irresistible” Pepsi.

It’s not just Pepsi, however. Most soft drink brands do not sell you soft drinks, they sell you a dream. I do not know how sugary carbonated water is one step ahead of fulfilling anyone’s dreams. Alternatively in the 1970s, Coca-Cola had a similar ad campaign called “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” where the soft drink was enjoyed by people of diverse creeds and races. It was “woke” for the times, simple to understand, and something most brands were not already doing.

What Is Woke Advertising?

Woke is a term that originated in the United States of America a long time ago, but was popularized in the 2000s. As a result, it has now turned into a full-blown culture that intersects with the various social, political, and personal elements of our lives. The 1900s had a fair share of credibility on being woke. However, woke culture is something Americans popularized that has now become the whole world’s definition of a social media lifestyle. Today, being woke is less about activism or awareness and more about the act of being pretentiously aware on social media. Moreover, it definitely is politically associated and has been misused by many people. The moment something so controversial integrates with marketing and advertising, specifically, the entire narrative becomes a cue for social or political messages, the innuendoes, the subtle hints, and then the closely targeted segments.

Do we even need to talk about how the #RaceTogether campaign by Starbucks or #BeMoreHuman campaign by Reebok seemed completely off-track? The two campaigns were irrelevant to the brand and only caused more controversies than praises. Only if a hashtag could make the brands actually act upon the problems they advertise! Hyundai’s Pipe Job ad is one of the most tone-deaf ads where the car’s features lead to a failed suicide attempt. Or when McDonald’s flipped the golden arches on the logo to apparently celebrate women while they were already facing sexual harassment and toxic work culture issues in their office.

I often wonder why woke advertising seems so cliché. Maybe because we see the ads on a particular issue during the same time when it is financially safe and socially convenient for brands to do so. Brands have shifted from product-centric advertising to advertising that is celebrity endorsed. The problem with such advertising is that a celebrity, a human being with a substantial fan base, is the ambassador of a product. It is rather common in the world of advertising, but now the political elements of the celebrity’s life are instrumental in endorsements. Such acts make the brands look noble in the eyes of the customers.

A fashion brand that sells the idea that fashion can be for all body types may look woke, but it does fuel the fire of fast fashion and exploits the workers in Asian countries. We do not see the automobile industry selling cars to women enough. The only time they do is when they are selling a car that is meant for the family. My point here is that being woke may be a strong pretense by brands that do not even care about half the things they say.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Do you think political radicalism should be mixed with advertising? Everything is a sum or consequence of a political/economic system and representing it only gives more representation to the diverse consumers. But is diversity really being represented that well? Are brands going to only talk about the feminist movement and women empowerment while selling products to women? Men can be feminists too, right? Are they going to dig deeper into the intersectionality of feminism? Is posting a statement or a hashtag enough? There is nothing absolutely right or completely wrong here—maybe it all does seem to be meta.

Maybe as consumers, we do want to feel better about our consumption choices, so we choose the party that makes us feel so. Edward Bernays figured this out way before I did. People do buy things on the basis of how it makes them feel. The catch here is to perhaps be more needy for better efforts in advertising. Brands talk about inclusivity while selling the same products for each skin /body type. We have to understand marketing only benefits the brands, so the change must arise at the product level. If it is inclusivity they endorse, then let’s see 30 more additions to the range because one size does not fit all.

To conclude, for all I know, woke advertising is a gimmick every marketer out there is using, but it should not be lazy. If something is so deeply talked about in society, the level of emotive response would obviously be more intense. This is why brands must take up the responsibility to create a lasting positive impact for the greater good.

Do you think woke advertising is lazy marketing? Let us know down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.