Enough is enough.
Let’s make a pledge to ourselves in 2021.
Let’s end “wokevertising” once and for all.
Whisper it softly to yourself. Demand it on your Zoom calls. Hell, thrust open your windows and scream at the top of your lungs.
I don’t care how you do it, as long as you say:
NO MORE WOKEVERTISING IN 2021.
Jokes aside, I’ve got a deadly serious point to make.
Turning generational social movements into marketing trends that can feature in campaigns isn’t just callous and at times offensive. Doing so could have truly dangerous implications.
I’ll start by making a clarification.
When I say “wokevertising” I’m not referring to “brand purpose”.
The act of brands and corporations reflecting and looking deep within themselves to figure out how they can make long-term, meaningful contributions to the world around them – well that should be applauded.
“Wokevertising” is the act of being seen to do the above in the only way some of us know how – through a punchy marketing campaign.
Think Kendell Jenner x Pepsi if you want an OG wokevertisement.
Solving the world's problems one social asset at a time.
Marketing can change the world!
Except no-one asked it to. No-one asked for brands to replace governments and for ad agencies to replace NGOs.
Nor do we necessarily have the deep expertise required to navigate these big complex questions. Especially when we’re trying to cram it all into 90 seconds.
Sadly the attempt to make hugely complex issues work in digestible marketing formats is clearly a trend in the ad industry. The assumption is that it will help us sell to ever more skeptical customers.
And perhaps this would work if only a handful of brands took this approach meaningfully.
Unfortunately even Kendall couldn’t stem the tide. Wokevertising, right now, is everywhere – from “diverse” one-dimensional casting, to grandiose manifestos. It’s in every YouTube pre roll. Every TV break. Every sponsored post. Every banner ad.
A barrage of:
“Believe in who you are”.
“We UnDeRsTaNd ThEsE aRe UnPrEsCeDeNtEd TiMeS”.
“Change is a long journey, and it starts today”.
Tell that to your six month old black square on Instagram.
But I think the levees have finally broken.
We have been flooded by so much wokevertising that the once radical act of making a political statement as a brand is now anything but.
I honestly feel pure relief when I see a Cillit Bang ad that doesn’t try to talk about race and identity.
Our audiences are getting fed up with brands overreaching.
Just read the comments beneath Mini’s latest brand statement that condenses complex layered identity politics into a melee of five-second vignettes.
“This looks like an advertisement for ‘Centre of Equality’.”
“If you are going to make an advertisement for a car brand.... maybe SHOW THE CAR for more than 15% of the video.”
The thick fog of wokevertising has made us perhaps overestimate our role in society and forget our primary responsibilities commercially.
The box tick diversity that wokevertising leans on leaves the communities that are “championed” feeling short changed and used.
Often the people making the calls in these campaigns are not from those communities on screen… which can be telling.
But worse still, wokevertising is leaving those interested in our products perplexed at best, and angered at worst.
Beats is another confusing culprit. On one hand it made a strong nuanced statement about Blackness in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests across the US.
Then it bizarrely translated this message into Flo Milli dancing in front of a confederate statue interlaced with abrasive product shots.
Sounded great in a deck, but as this reviewer says, it didn’t quite translate.
As leading industry voice Marvyn Harrison eloquently put it: “Brands becoming over familiar with a community group or protected characteristic and using it to shamelessly sell products is so unworkable.”
That’s the thing. You’ll often find wokevertising campaigns don’t really have a creative idea.
They think wokeness is the idea. This is where the emperor's new clothes can finally be seen.
Woke as cultural context, as knowledge, as guardrails, as a consideration – that can be a powerful thing.
But when it suffocates a commercial message to render it all but useless, perhaps that can be dangerous.
This leads me to perhaps the scariest ramification of wokevertising as a whole.
Have we inflated the importance of being woke to a point where we have alienated many different segments of mainstream audiences?
And by ignoring them, will those audiences turn to other places? Will they respond to other types of route-one unprogressive advertising instead?
In a way this is the story of our time. The story of Brexit and Donald Trump.
You don’t need an Adam Curtis film to tell you that left-leaning liberal creative industries (which, I hold my hands up, I’m part of) have failed to connect with large swathes of the wider population.
A vacuum which the global alt-right have all too easily exploited again and again in the last decade.
In our little petri dish of marketing, wokevertising is no different. It too can be easily weaponised by those on the fringes of the alt-right movement.
It’s easy to use wokevertising as proof that the “wokerati” have lost touch with the “average person” with their “cultural elitism”.
Proof for the haters that (the actually good intention of) giving underrepresented communities a platform is a waste of time.
Will wokevertising, if it continues at this rate, actually take us backwards to a type of advertising that’s undiverse? A polarization of extremely woke and unwoke communication to serve equally polarized populations?
Will our intentions of creating a more representative industry that makes more representative work be impossible to see through because we went too far with wokevertising?
Okay Ravi, so great. Easy to rip into wokevertising, well done.
But representation is important and people need to see themselves on screen.
We want to make change as a collective industry.
How are we meant to do that if we can’t wokevertise?
Good question. But the good news is it’s possible.
Here are just a few ways.
Firstly, find time to give over the mic if you need to tackle a certain demographic or issue. What is hard work (or just plain impossible) for certain agencies with traditional structures and cultures just comes naturally to others.
Kendrick Lemar and Dave Free’s “service company” has created work with no “pre-eminent woke message.” Just beautifully crafted storytelling from a genuinely Black perspective. Pumped full of meaning and references without having to hammer it home. It is what it is. And it’s not just great. It stands out from the crowd so clearly. Simple stories, with more meaning the more you look at it.
A straight up commission where the creative team knows their audience inside out at all levels and doesn’t need to hide behind wokevertising to be confident in what they are saying.
I maintain no agency or brand committee could ever have come up with something that feels so effortlessly original in the current political climate.
Secondly, let’s stop trying to cram everything in 90 seconds. It seems bonkers to be having these conversations still in 2021, but complex topics need to be explored over time. Don’t rely on one campaign message. Look at a whole suite of different types of stories that approach difficult issues in a nuanced way. Maybe become more editorial, communicating “little and often” rather than bunging everything into two campaigns a year.
Another solution is to just not be woke at all. Sometimes people just want to know the damn coffee tastes good. As long as you have the cultural intelligence to not be offensive, you don’t actually have to shove woke into every brief you write or receive. Instead you could re-focus back on really creative, unique ideas that cut through.
Not only would this just mix up what audiences are being served – giving you a chance of actually being listened to – but it also would allow (fewer!) powerful brand messages with purpose at their core to cut through.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, look at yourselves before you think about your output, whether you’re a brand, agency or production company. As a PoC run business, I can tell you that when you hire truly representative staff for a campaign, you don’t really have to hide behind the veil of wokeness. The fear of being “cancelled” is an awful starting point for creativity, but often the confidence in what you approach comes from your people first and foremost.
So as we move on in 2021, perhaps we will see the end of the wokevertising, and the start of something far, far more interesting.
Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock is co-founder of Soursop.