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Woke-Washing: The Exploitation of Social Movements

Before beginning this article, I would like to acknowledge my privilege as a white woman and writing about a problem I am a part of. The intentions of this article are to educate and bring awareness to holding companies and persons accountable for the exploitation of groups through woke washing and performative activism.

Happy International Women's Day! Scrolling through our emails and social media are plasters of “Feminist” and “Girl Boss” on T-shirts with deals off for the day. It feels right that some of our favorite businesses are supporting women. Or during Black History Month, selling products with BLM on them. It's perfect! All of your favorite brands sell you all your favorite things while caring about womxn, BIPOC, and LGBT+ rights!

This is woke-washing; brands co-opting the language of social justice movements and activism to appeal to socially conscious shoppers. It is not uncommon, if not starting to be held accountable, for a business to be present on feminism, mental health, BLM, LGBT+ rights, and social movements today. According to a report conducted by Sprout Social, a social media analytics company, 66% of consumers consider a company’s political statements when purchasing. 

Yet, the extent of using these movements within corporations has reached a level of questioning the ethics behind it. Intentions behind PR and marketing strategies along with company practices tell another story.

Take Audi for example. Audi spent millions on a feminist Super Bowl advertisement last year, claiming that “Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work.” Yet, Audi has no women on its executive team. If you want to pay work equally, women have to be hired.

Performative activism, “allyship that only serves at the surface level to platform the ‘ally,’ from companies play a role in business tactics as well. Posting on social media stories or using hashtags is not enough. It is simply the minimum amount creating a false image of support.

For example, companies may post “Black Lives Matter’ to social media accounts. Yet, the company does nothing more to support. Whether more is through educating, recognizing privilege, changing business practices, donating, and talking about what is going on companies are just exploiting black people. Some companies that participate even hold histories of discrimination. 

Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

Social justice sells. “People shop with their values now - but brands haven’t changed theirs,” says MacGilp on why woke-washing is everywhere today. “They’ve just changed the way they communicate with them.”

When Nike used Colin Kaepernick as the face of their “Just Do It” campaign in September 2019, their stocks rose by 5% in only two weeks. Clearly, a benefit to the company, not the original intention of Kapernick and the movement.

There have been some accomplishments to the downsides. In the past, advertising has been based on “sex” and harmful societal expectations. Companies are being forced to sell for what truly matters now to a large group of people. Woke-washing is like a complicated relationship of good intentions, but harmful and frustrating actions. The benefits are not outweighing the costs and damage.

Moving forward, advertising and funding need to change. Rather than capitalizing on social movements and issues, companies should donate the majority of their profits to organizations. Profiting off of what a company claims to support completely goes against the cause.

It can be difficult to spot when a company is woke-washing or performative activism. CEO Gordon Renouf advises looking out for buzzwords and general statements without any concrete information or big claims followed by the fine print. Additionally, Renouf continues, brands will divert attention away from harmful business operations by emphasizing one initiative but failing to address all areas of impact. Be wary if they announce a few easy but insignificant issues to work on.” 

two women speaking to each other Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Groups are already making process, in positive news, against woke-washing. Since 2011, #wokewashing is committed to creating and sharing content that allows both corporations and consumers to ask “How can I make this better?. The website and agency have created a helpful website to not only hold brands accountable but educate us consumers on what we can do. 

Companies must live up to expectations. Womxn, BIPOC, and LGBT+ should be in positions on all levels. Diversity is what makes us better. All perspectives and representation bring rich growth and necessary dialogue.

It is simply not enough to say “Black Lives Matter” or “Feminist.”  Question the brands you follow and buy from. Recognize that educating yourself on this topic and your privilege is a privilege itself. Reflect on your posts asking yourself if it is out of empathy and change, or to appear as apart of a movement. We must hold brands accountable while doing our part.