Socially Conscious Marketing Collage

The Impact of Socially Conscious Marketing

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?

1955 Cigarette Ad
“Gentler than Words.” Woman’s Day

The 20th century saw some of the most culturally potent advertising, and though we may cringe today at much of the outdated stereotypes and tropes in their messaging, some of those ads were, in fact, ‘woke’ for their time.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. 

Modern-day marketing-gone-wrong cases illustrate this point even more dynamically. For International Women’s Day 2018, McDonald’s famously flipped their golden “M” arches into a “W” for, you guessed it: Watered-down activism, and immediately took the internet by storm. This stunt may have tracked national attention for its display of feel-good activism, but the company ultimately met with backlash for displaying such a heroic message while employing unlivable wages, poor sick leave policies and zero-hour contracts at the time – all ultimately harmful to the women (and men) in their workforce. Similarly, as companies responded to the BLM protests in 2020 with formal text on black backgrounds, Amazon expressed their solidarity just the same but was immediately called out by the ACLU for selling surveillance technology that promotes police abuse.

McDonald’s ‘M’ logo
Photograph: HANDOUT/Reuters

This isn’t to say that all marketing shouldn’t have inspiring or conversation-provoking messaging. AirBnb’s “We Accept” campaign featured the progressive message of inclusivity in response to the 2017 political decision on American borders. This works well because AirBnb as a company practices inclusive housing policies.

Another valid, albeit *extremely controversial* example, is Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” campaign which took a stance on misogyny, from microaggressions to assault, and asked its audience “Is this the best a man can be?”, a play on its historic tagline “The Best A Man Can Get”. This campaign advocated for a cultural conversation in response to the #MeToo movement, as a brand that delivers to men and culturally defines masculinity through its marketing (also while hosting a diverse array of leadership in its company), but it was received poorly. Whether this is a reflection of how our society responds to constructive criticism, rather interpreting it as a personal attack, or whether our society doesn’t appreciate a brand’s opinion, it must be said that Gillette took a risk worth taking, for the right reasons – even if it failed. 

As consumers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of such triumphant advertising, partially because great advertising tells an emotionally captivating story that’s hard to resist. We live in a complex and multifaceted society, in which there is hardly ever a strict ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. But brands should be as conscious of their company policies and actions as they are of the social climate. 

For the companies that ‘walk the walk’ and donate their proceeds, raise awareness and start conversations on a national level, great! But the socially conscious consumer should be aware that this all comes at, well – a cost. 

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Also published on Medium.

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