Solving the Problem or Contributing to One?
Written by: Sahil Dhaliwal
A glimpse into the history of marketing will tell you that advertisements have always been a reflection of our culture – ads change and progress as our cultural values do. But to what extent is progressive messaging in advertising socially beneficial and when does it become exploitative?
American media has seen a steady influx of socially conscious, or ‘woke’, marketing in recent years and especially in 2020, following the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the unjust murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and more. Messages that were once dismissed as “too political” or controversial, are now being positioned at the forefront of many brands’ images to advocate for social change.
This noble pursuit dons the mark of social and moral responsibility, but more often than not, a deeper look into the companies behind the ads often reveals a contradiction at play. Though we’d love to operate under the assumption that their intentions are positive, we can’t help but consider the commercial viability of spreading popular messages that will bolster viewership and garner attention – even if those messages echo previously avoided ‘political’ and ‘controversial’ messaging. The pull of such triumphant and awe-inspiring ads are what garner a larger profit margin for those at the top of the food chain, and often that’s not shared with their workforce. What is the implication of woke messaging and how does a consumer maneuver through it all?
The 20th century saw some of the most culturally potent advertising, and though we may cringe today at much of the outdated stereotypes and tropes in their messaging, some of those ads were, in fact, ‘woke’ for their time. In fact, cigarette companies got ahead of the rising feminist movement and publicly championed women in leadership roles… while promoting cancer-causing cigarettes. Though the majority of marketing only catered to, and featured, white Americans, these same cigarette companies tapped into the African American markets with seemingly progressive ads featuring Black people – but again, to ultimately sell a life-threatening product.