Does Woke Advertising Work?

Corporate America has largely aligned itself with the Left, a choice that is often reflected in advertising. “Get woke, go broke” is a nice sentiment, but unfortunately it isn’t always–or, perhaps, usually–true. Nike, to name just one example, has profited greatly by being anti-American. Some of this probably has to do with catering to a non-American customer base, but sadly there is also no shortage of Americans who respond to leftist pitches.

The Telegraph covers a recent round of advertising awards and headlines, “Advertising agencies’ woke campaigns misfire.” The headline, though, is perhaps too optimistic.

The signals coming out of Cannes were clear. Brands must now have a higher purpose than simply peddling products. They should support, comfort and be a voice for change during tumultuous times.

The general public, however, had other ideas.

Lord, I hope so! When I buy razor blades, for example, I just want sharp, competitively-priced blades, not a lecture on how women can be men too, as we got from Gillette. I no longer buy Gillette products.

A point that is not made often enough is that the profit motive is the purest, cleanest, most ethical motive a company can have. Obviously profits must be made honestly and legally. But providing goods and services of the best quality at the lowest price is the purest contribution that any company can make to society. Any pretense to do “more” than that can only represent a downhill trajectory and often an outright fraud, although charitable contributions out of net profits may sometimes be a good idea.

Woke advertising can be not just offensive, but downright disgusting, as in this appalling Burger King ad:

I am not sure what marketing genius thought that showing a moldy Whopper would cause people to buy more Whoppers. I don’t know anyone who lets a fast food burger sit for one day, let alone 34. My own practice when eating a Whopper (more likely, a Big Mac) is to pick it up in both hands and not put it down until it is finished. Fast food burgers start to get disgusting in around 10 minutes, not 34 days.

Sadly, the people who follow advertising say that the woke trend will be with us for a while:

Amid the rise of ethical investing and pressure on companies to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a sign of good corporate governance, brands are eager to promote their position on divisive issues despite a potential reprisal from customers or staff.

“I think you do have to have a point of view as a chief executive and a company,” MacLennan adds. “You wield power and influence. You are no longer allowed to say ‘I just sell bread’, you have to have a view.”

Purpose-driven advertising strikes a fine balance between winning customers that agree and alienating those with opposing views.

By definition, when companies weigh in on controversial issues they are pleasing some and alienating others. But the dilemma may be resolved to a considerable degree by Big Data:

Yet in the age of targeted advertising – where agencies can serve people with digital ads based on troves of personal data – such ads have the ability to preach to the converted.

Sir Martin Sorrell, the executive chairman of S4 Capital, says there is “a lot of greenwashing and virtue signalling going on” from the advertising industry. But he believes the critics of purpose-driven advertising are simply failing to accept the industry’s evolution.

“When you look at all the major issues we have to deal with: Covid, climate change, technological change, diversity and inclusion, the negative impacts of globalisation, political developments such as US/China relations or the lack of them, all of these issues do worry consumers,” he adds.

“The market environment has changed and it is very difficult for people in the traditional part of the industry to get their minds around that. In that new world, the way you develop relationships with consumers has become much more personalised, activational and maybe much more short term. The industry looks back with rose-tinted spectacles at the Don Draper days – but times have changed.”

Unfortunately, that assessment may be correct.