According to the QT, Brits are losing confidence in traditional institutions [1] and consumers are increasingly looking towards brands to take a stance on the topical issues that rule the day. Advertisers have responded in kind with a slew of socially conscious campaigns, dubbed by some commentators as “woke advertising” [2]. Though brands taking a stance on topical issues is nothing new (e.g. the never-ending stream of sponsored floats in LGBT pride parades), increasingly it seems as though social issues are becoming the focal point of some of the largest brand-building campaigns, rather than the actual products. These campaigns present an opportunity for brands to tap into Generation Z’s social milieu, but if poorly executed, can alienate their customer base regardless of their best intentions.

Perhaps the most striking example of “woke advertising” this year has been Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” campaign. Launched in January, the campaign was a short film which replaced Gillette’s famous “The Best A Man Can Get” slogan with “The Best Men Can Be”, weighing in on bullying, sexism and sexual harassment. The campaign proved highly divisive with a like to dislike ratio of 1:2 on YouTube [3], as well as provoking numerous opinion pieces in both the media as well as in Ad-land. Some critics of the campaign suggested that the backlash against the campaign came down to the fact that it tried to hold its primary customer base – men – accountable for negative behaviour that most would say they don’t engage in the first place.

Colin Kaepernick’s Nike campaign in September last year is perhaps a better executed example of so-called “woke advertising”. Imploring individuals to “believe in something”, it implicitly took the side of Kaepernick who was the figurehead for a movement of NFL players kneeling during the US national anthem in protest of police brutality, but didn’t directly call out its customer base as Gillette did. Though the advert provoked a backlash similar to Gillette’s campaign with some consumers promising to boycott the brand, it played well with Nike’s target audience – young Americans who tend to hold complementary views of Nike and/or Kaepernick. From a business perspective the campaign was arguably a rousing success, with stock prices reaching an all-time high following the advert and online sales up 31% during the bank holiday weekend that followed it [4].

So called “woke advertising” is then a high-risk strategy not for the faint-hearted of advertisers. However, when well executed and with a strong appeal to the beliefs of the target audience, brands can generate a significant amount of buzz around them as well as create strong demand for their products.

[1] QT; May 2019