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Pretending To Care: The Rise in ‘Woke Advertising”

By: David Vauthier

In recent years, we have seen the rise in so-called ‘woke advertising’, with many corporations co-opting liberal movements for their business practices. From engaging in rainbow-capitalism1 around Pride month, to the commodification of feminism2 to ‘empower’ women, this seemingly progressive practice has become a new norm in the advertisement.

Indeed, this change reflects the new ways in which we interact with the media. In the past, through radio, television, newspapers, and many others, it was a lot easier for advertisers to know what they were getting for their advertisements. They paid for a select time slot and could know more or less how many people were going to have to watch it. However, online, this just does not hold3. People nowadays are so used to tuning out the 5 seconds advertisement before their content that the model simply does not work anymore. The advertisement had to become the content and introduce an aspect of ‘shareability’4.

Take for example Nike’s advertisement with Colin Kaepernick. By supporting a cause and taking a stand, the commercial became a global talking point, with some calling to boycott the company while others went out of their ways to purchase their products. This controversy and conversation were basically free advertisements for Nike; to which Nike directly attributed a 6 billion dollar increase in company value5. “When your company or product is the discussion, not even an ad-block can hide you6”.

Despite the obvious benefits to the corporations, is it socially responsible for them to ‘ally’ themselves with these movements? While these themes of social justice are no more than abstract concepts meant to propagate a message about a brand in the commercial, we’re still talking about real movements, real emotions, and real lives. For an effective advertisement, the brand must present the viewer with a problem and sell them the solution. But will the purchase of a Gillette razor7 actually put an end to toxic masculinity?

By drawing on real situations that people have to face every day just to exploit the attached emotions, this type of advertisement can be quite emotionally manipulative8. It is as if they were telling the viewers: ‘why march when you could simply consume?’ Furthermore, there’s an aspect of cognitive dissonance necessary to look at companies like Nike – still a world leader in the employment of child labour and sweat shops9 – and tout them as the bastion of equality. Viewed from this lens, the messaging really rings false and is more akin to virtue signalling than any actual call for change10.

And yet, despite their performative and inauthentic nature, these advertisements in a way do represent actual progress. In the past, many of the issues commonly gracing our screens would have been far too taboo for any company to broach. The fact that we have reached a climate in which corporations can reliably consider these progressive movements profitable does demonstrate a general cultural shift towards equality. Moreover, it has been shown many times that the simple act of depicting diversity in the media can make people more tolerant11.

All in all, ‘woke advertising’ is more nuanced than it may initially appear, but it is important for viewers to realize when their good intentions could be preyed upon by corporations. While the practice may indeed do some amount of good, let us keep in mind that that new pair of Nike sneakers will not save the world either.


1. Harrison, Da’Shaun. “How Rainbow Capitalism Harms the Origins of Pride.” BET.com, 7 June 2019, www.bet.com/style/living/2019/06/07/rainbow-capitalism-is-harmful.html.

2. Iqbal, Nosheen. “Femvertising: How Brands Are Selling #empowerment to Women.” The Guardian, The Guardian, 25 Nov. 2017,


3. Hsu, Tiffany. “The Advertising Industry Has a Problem: People Hate Ads.” The New York Times, 28 Oct. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/10/28/business/media/advertising-industry-research.html.

4. Coffee Break. “Woke Advertising.” YouTube, 4 May 2019,

www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQIWb07pBZE&list=PL3SUiE1AqIH--8qQlwUrCZ0WOwOSLHiJ8&inde x=2. Accessed 7 Nov. 2020.

5. Beer, Jeff. “One Year Later, What Did We Learn from Nike’s Blockbuster Colin Kaepernick Ad?” Fast Company, Fast Company, 5 Sept. 2019,

www.fastcompany.com/90399316/one-year-later-what-did-we-learn-from-nikes-blockbuster-colin-kaeper nick-ad.

6. hbomberguy. “WOKE BRANDS.” YouTube, 22 Feb. 2019,

www.youtube.com/watch?v=06yy88tLWlg&list=PL3SUiE1AqIH--8qQlwUrCZ0WOwOSLHiJ8&index= 3. Accessed 7 Nov. 2020.

7. Cerón, Ella. “MRAs Outraged After Razor Company Asks Men to Show Common Decency.” The Cut, 15 Jan. 2019, www.thecut.com/2019/01/gillette-the-best-men-can-be-commercial-backlash.html.

8. Reiff, Lauren. “A Critique on ‘Woke’ Advertising.” Medium, 3 Sept. 2020,

medium.com/swlh/a-critique-on-woke-advertising-426f4100e50f. Accessed 7 Nov. 2020.

9. New Idea. “Nike Sweatshops: The Truth About the Nike Factory Scandal.” New Idea, 14 Nov. 2019, www.newidea.com.au/nike-sweatshops-the-truth-about-the-nike-factory-scandal.

10. Burton, Tara Isabella. “Are Corporations Becoming the New Arbiters of Public Morality?” Vox, 17 Aug. 2017,

www.vox.com/identities/2017/8/17/16162226/corporations-replacing-churches-americas-conscience. Accessed 7 Nov. 2020.

11. Cheryl. “Study Suggests Normalizing Diversity & Inclusion Makes People More Tolerant.” We Rep STEM, 3 July 2020,

werepstem.com/2020/07/03/study-suggests-normalizing-diversity-inclusion-makes-people-more-tolerant/. Accessed 7 Nov. 2020.

*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.


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