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Brands need to stop woke washing

Brands may choose to roll back their campaigns or stand their ground, and their response is often a good indication of their conviction on the depth of their belief about the campaign 

October 28, 2021 / 05:54 PM IST

In the last few years, brands have been under increasing attack for their advertisement campaigns. This Diwali, Dabur came up with a campaign depicting a same sex couple celebrating Karva Chauth. Under social media pressure, it was withdrawn, and Dabur issued an unconditional apology for ‘unintentionally hurting people’s sentiments’.

At around the same time last year, Tanishq had to hurriedly pull back two of its Diwali advertisements after facing a social media backlash. While one depicted Sayani Gupta suggesting that diyas, laughter and positivity should replace firecrackers, the other depicted a pregnant Hindu woman dressed in a sari, in a Muslim household, with a woman she calls ‘ma’.

Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time there was a call to replace firecrackers with diyas and laughter. Environmentalists make this call every year, and have consistently received extensive social media support.

It was obvious that the impact the controversy could create on Diwali sales was what motivated the companies to withdrawn the advertisements. It was pure commercial consideration that led to the creation of these in the first place, and it was pure commercial consideration that led to their abrupt withdrawal.

Whether social media has led to greater intolerance is not the topic here. Let’s look at how brands, and their marketing gimmicks have systematically created biases, stereotypes, and trivialised serious social issues.


All these advertisement campaigns were at one level popular, but the criticism they drew was equally strong, and many saw the empowering messaging as shallow, commercially motivated, lacking in conviction, contrived, and demeaning. The motive, and the depth of commitment to a cause in any communication is what creates credibility or doubt.

Woke Washing

Andi Zeisler’s 2017 book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, is a witty, fearless, and resolute book that strikes at the root of this duplicity of brands. In this book she writes: “Feminism has hit the big time. Once a dirty word brushed away with a grimace, ‘feminist’ has been rebranded as a shiny label sported by movie and pop stars, fashion designers, and multi-hyphenate powerhouses like Beyoncé. It drives advertising and marketing campaigns for everything from wireless plans to underwear to perfume, presenting what's long been a movement for social justice as just another consumer choice in a vast market. Individual self-actualization is the goal, shopping more often than not the means, and celebrities the mouthpieces. But what does it mean when social change becomes a brand identity? Feminism’s splashy arrival at the center of today's media and pop-culture marketplace, after all, hasn't offered solutions to the movement's unfinished business.”

She adds that movies, television, advertising, and fashion reveals a media landscape brimming with the language of empowerment, but offering little in the way of transformational change.

When feminism gets appropriated by celebrities, and is driven by strong consumerism, the real goal of feminism suffers irreparable damage for the simple reason that the majority are lulled into believing that things are changing, and we are making progress. Woke washing is being increasingly called out, but time and again, brands still resort to it hoping that they can get away.

A Pepsi advertisement in 2017 starring Kendall Jenner made light of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests when she joins a multi-racial protest, walks up to a police officer, and offers him a can of Pepsi. The crowd cheers in ecstasy, and the problem is solved. Social issues are not that simple.

Duplicity Is Ubiquitous In Advertising

Sometime in June 2020, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) announced that it had repositioned the ‘Fair and Lovely’ brand from ‘fairness’ to ‘glow’. After exploiting, and reinforcing, the prejudice against dark skin and a dusky complexion for 45 years, the brand gave in to increasing social pressure. By merely replacing the word 'fair' with 'glow' was insulting the intelligence of consumers because that did not change the product attributes which was what was under criticism.

HUL claimed that the decision to abandon the moniker of ‘fair’ had nothing to do with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the United States, and that the timing was just a coincidence. They had displayed a cavalier attitude to the same demand made by Indian social activists for long by insisting that they were just offering what consumers wanted. They even had the temerity to create a ‘Fair and Lovely Foundation’ to enhance the self-esteem of women in India. Corporates can get away with brazen disingenuity for long, but the long arm of ‘karma’ catches up eventually.

The dilemma that companies face in dealing with social and ethical issues is wanting to come across as socially-conscious and responsible, but at the same time maximise financial returns to their stakeholders by pandering to consumer needs. Ethical issues can range from exaggerated claims about product performance to perpetuating biases and stereotypes, or creating desires based on a realistically unattainable portrayal of body types and beauty. Taking positions on socially-contentious issues cannot be about hitching one’s wagon to a popular trend. It has to be an outcome of deep organisational beliefs and values. The courage to stand one’s ground comes when the stance is an outcome of such a belief.

In a crowded marketplace, brands are under increasing pressure to create top-of-the-mind recall for consumers. They use every weapon in their arsenal to do this, some imaginative and some crass. Social media has begun to call out obfuscation, and duplicity of any kind. Brands may choose to roll-back their campaigns or stand their ground, and their response is often a good indication of their conviction on the depth of their belief about the campaign.

TN Hari is HR Head, Bigbasket. Twitter: @TNHari.

Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.
TN Hari
first published: Oct 28, 2021 05:47 pm

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