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A short history of brands trying to be woke

Have you been buying in to brand activism?

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Weekly updates

2017 has seen a major trend in advertising develop where companies take a stand on a political issue in an attempt to prove to their customers that they can put their money where their values are. It’s called ‘brand activism’ and we’ve seen some truly spectacular examples of it in the last few months. Pepsi became the laughing stock of the internet with their #JoinTheMovement advertisement, whereas Airbnb were applauded for their #WithRefugees campaign, which offered free housing to people affected by Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim ban.’

Previously, most brands have chosen to remain apolitical rather than take a stand on current political issues. This was done to avoid alienating customers who may not necessarily agree with what a brand has to say. But now they’re banking on the fact that people are politically engaged and enraged, and want their brands to reflect that.

However, companies have a history of getting it wrong on sensitive political issues. Take the overuse of the LGBTIQ pride flag in advertising, for example. Over the last 30 years it has been used to sell everything from energy drinks to banks. And yet, slapping a rainbow on a cookie has gotten us no closer to marriage equality in Australia.

The common theme amongst failed attempts around brand activism are a lack of authenticity and intention; in 2017 you cannot buy your way onto the bandwagon and not expect immediate consequences and sweeping reactions if you drastically miss the mark.

Below we take a look at some examples of brands trying to be woke, getting it wrong, and getting owned for it.

01. Pepsi & Kendall Jenner #JoinTheMovement

The Pepsi and Kendall Jenner advertisement has set the bar for woeful and offensive attempts at brand activism. The worldwide reaction to the ad was almost universally critical as Pepsi plagarised and trivialised one of the most important protest movements, Black Lives Matter. The ad was so tone-deaf it was even released on the date civil-rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated, while indirectly referencing police brutality.

It was pulled and Pepsi issued an apology statement less than 48 hours after it was released. Kendall Jenner refuses to talk to the media about it; any journalist who tries to bring it up will be banned from speaking to her ever again.

02. Audi’s ‘gender pay equality’

Despite never engaging with feminism before, Audi’s 2017 Super Bowl commercial declared they were for gender pay equality. The ad they released showed a young girl participating in a billy-cart race, only competing against boys, she manages a triumphant win.

It didn’t take long for the internet to uncover that no women sit on Audi’s Management Board and its 14 person American executive team only has two women on it.

The company pledged to address online criticism of their ad, but that only led to further roasting and embarrassment:

03. McDonalds’ <3’n pays campaign

In America, McDonald’s launched a valentine’s day campaign encouraging customers to come up with kind and novel ways to pay for their food, instead of using money. Everything from fist-bumps, hugs, or encouraging employees to call their mother’s and tell them they loved them was accepted in return for a Big Mac Meal. This came at a time when McDonald’s were trying to reconnect with their customers, and let them know they were worth more to them than the price of their McMeal.

At the same time, McDonald’s employees were holding mass strikes across the states demanding minimum wage and the ability to form unions.

The disconnect between asking some of the lowest paid workers in America to gleefully play along with the antics of their customers was heavily criticised. The campaign was cancelled and McDonald’s issued a red-faced ‘explanatory statement.’

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04. And whatever comes next...

While there’s money to be made from it, brand activism will continue to trend. As consumers, we can vote with our money, and hold companies accountable when they get it wrong. It’s not hard to smell a rat, especially if it’s trying to sell you an “Feminist Equality Soda”.