“Go woke, go broke!” Attributed to John Ringo, this phrase is commonly used to criticize companies’ decisions to embrace woke ideology, only to find out that it’s not as popular as they thought it would be.
Delving into politics is a risky matter for businesses. Often, what the media embraces as the only right thing to do isn’t really that popular among the masses of consumers.
All too frequently, businesses adopt certain viewpoints or practices lauded by the media in the hopes of improving their image. However, it does more harm than good, and consumers frequently see it as bowing to societal pressure rather than genuinely wanting to make a change in the world.
Today, we will look at examples of brands that went woke and suffered the consequences. We’ll also look at woke ideology, what it means, and why brands are tempted to adopt it in the first place.
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Going woke or “being woke” is a relatively new term that refers to embracing “woke ideology.”
Woke ideology is a broad term for believing in progressive, far-left, social justice causes. It’s generally considered a bit more to the left and a bit more extreme than what a “moderate Democrat” would believe in. However, nowadays, the woke agenda seems to be becoming embraced by more and more Democrats and those who vote for them.
Being woke is an all-encompassing term that can mean you believe in one or more (usually at least several) of the following causes:
- Climate change
- LGBTQ rights
- Gender inequality
- Racial inequality
Of course, there is much to say about such issues and their worthiness. What makes “woke” people different, though – and the reason many people use the word mockingly – is the sense of performance activism and over righteous zealousness that seems common among such individuals.
All too often, woke people take a hard-line and intolerant stance on specific issues, exemplifying the very intolerance they rail against.
Woke culture goes beyond addressing issues such as racism and gender inequality. It proposes extreme solutions that not only take things too far but end up hurting others at the same time.
Some examples of woke beliefs include:
- Paying reparations to African-Americans (this money will be coming from the taxes of people who were never slave owners and be given to people who were never slaves)
- Believing every allegation of sexual misconduct or abuse and ruining the lives of potentially innocent men without enough evidence (the #MeToo movement)
- Misandry disguised as feminism
- Allowing transgender individuals who identify as women (despite having penises) into women’s bathrooms and spas, including in the presence of young girls
- Allowing those who identify as women to compete in competitions intended for women only, despite having a biological advantage due to more testosterone, stronger muscles, etc.
- Excessively regulating companies, including large and small businesses, in the name of climate change
- Causing people to lose their jobs due to slightly insensitive comments made online or offline, sometimes made years ago (even when they were teenagers)
In all of those cases, being overly righteous might make someone feel good, but they are hurting or inconveniencing others in the process. This kind of woke activism is regularly exemplified by bullying and tearing down others.
A great example is the teacher at a private all-girls school who had to apologize for greeting her students with “Good afternoon, girls” after several students complained that they used different pronouns. Various other teachers received suspensions or were fired for similar innocent mistakes.
A common pitfall is for business owners to blindly believe media articles that make it seem like everyone believes in wokeness. Often, these polls are biased, and even if they aren’t, each business has a unique consumer base that might lean toward the conservative side a bit more.
Besides, mixing politics and business isn’t usually a good idea. You risk alienating a large percentage of your population because your PR manager thought it would make the company look good or because the chief executive was driven by their opinions and emotions instead of making sound business decisions.
That being said, following are the most famous examples of companies that embraced the woke political agenda only to discover that it didn’t help increase sales – in fact, the opposite was true.
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Perhaps the most famous and outrageous example of PR stupidity in embracing woke culture is Gillette. In 2019, it ran a pre-Super Bowl commercial entitled “The best men can be.”
Its goal was to address issues revolving around toxic masculinity, including sexual harassment, misogyny, and violence.
It starts by referencing the #MeToo movement and its longtime slogan, asking, “Is this the best men can get?” It proceeds to show boys fighting while their dads say, “Boys will be boys!”
It also shows scenes portraying cyberbullying, a man touching a woman’s shoulder during a business meeting and condescendingly “mansplaining” her words, and then pivoting to the changing future: men rebuking other men for catcalling women, a father telling his daughter to say, “I am strong,” and a father running to break up a fight between young boys.
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Now, stop and think about it for a second. Who is Gillette’s main target audience?
That’s right, men – the very audience Gillette seemingly went out to attack and antagonize in the short video commercial.
At the time, the video was heavily criticized by talking heads, politicians, editorials, and opinion blogs. Furthermore, a vocal population of Gillette’s customers vowed to boycott Gillette and never buy from the brand again.
According to the BBC, the video, which received over two million views on YouTube in just 48 hours, had 214,000 dislikes and just 23,000 likes at one point. (Note that YouTube no longer displays dislikes.)
Funnily enough, the ad was disliked not only by men but also by the feminists Gillette was supposedly trying to please. They saw it as a horrible attempt to capitalize on a movement for profits – it was seen as inauthentic and done with the wrong motives.
Instead of improving its image, Gillette managed to annoy both sides of the political aisle and impress nobody.
After the ad, Gillette experienced an $8 billion cash write-down. However, the company blamed it on new grooming trends – more men letting their beards grow instead of shaving.
Was it simply burying its head in the sand?
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The video shows people marching and holding signs – they are happy and smiling. Kendall Jenner sees the protests, is motioned to join, and walks through the crowd to a line of white police officers and hands them a Pepsi.
The video was widely regarded as tasteless by both sides of the political aisle.
Pepsi’s goal was to show that Pepsi stood for unity and diversity. However, it was clear that it was capitalizing on imagery from the Black Lives Matter protests, and leftists criticized Pepsi heavily for that.
Liberals also criticized Pepsi for trying to capitalize on the imagery of Iesha Evans, who approached a line of police officers alone in a Baton Rouge protest and was subsequently arrested. Furthermore, they criticized the giving of Pepsi to police, saying that it normalized police violence and whitewashed police brutality.
Both sides of the aisle criticized the choice of Kendall Jenner, of all people, to be represented in the ad. She is seen as a privileged, rich, white kid who never faced any real hardships in her life, becoming famous not for her talent but for her physical beauty.
Certainly, the ad was tone-deaf, and Pepsi pulled it quickly once it realized it was generating such a backlash.
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What were the consequences? While some people might have avoided Pepsi and drank Coca-Cola instead, at least for a while, its most significant loss was likely the money it invested in producing this advertisement.
All in all, Pepsi probably spent around $5 million on the advertisement.
Bud Light is another example of a company producing a tone-deaf ad that alienated its own customer base.
In April 2023, Bud Light partnered with transgender TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney to promote Bud Light.
The problem? Bud Light has always been popular in the American South – among conservatives, rednecks, and right-wingers.
Partnering with a transgender influencer was just a poor marketing mistake, costing Bud Light a lot.
Anheuser-Busch InBev, the parent company of Bud Light, put two Bud Light marketing executives on leave after the controversy, which saw people calling to boycott Bud Light and famous rapper Kid Rock shooting up cans of Bud Light in a publicity stunt, according to CBS.
That was just the start of its troubles. According to CBS, sales of Bud Light have been down 23 percent compared to last year, and its stock has also been downgraded.
Anheuser-Busch InBev distanced itself from the ad in a statement, and that had the effect of angering people on the left side of the aisle, including LGBTQ activists.
In an attempt to regain its image as a patriotic and America-loving brand – critical for remaining popular among its user base – Bud Light released a patriotic, pro-America ad. It featured a Clydesdale horse galloping through rural America and past monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial.
This second ad also stirred up controversy. Right-wingers claimed Bud Light was merely pandering to their pro-American base, while PETA claimed that Bud Light amputated the tailbones of its horses.
According to Newsweek, Anheuser-Busch’s stock value dropped by as much as $4 billion since the controversy started.
In 2019, Nike released an ad featuring NFL player Colin Kaepernick. Colin Kaepernick has long been a controversial figure for his refusal to stand for the national anthem during NFL games, which caused him to receive a lot of criticism from the American right, including politicians and talk show hosts.
Colin Kaepernick’s intention was to draw attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The fact that Nike partnered with him and featured him in an ad caused a lot of people to call for Nike boycotts, with many people even burning their Nike trainers on social media.
Nike also came under fire in Japan for releasing an ad highlighting racism in Japan and the experience of mixed-heritage players facing discrimination.
A lot of Japanese people saw the ad as offensive. After all, Nike is a foreign brand, and many people were upset that a foreign brand thought it could come to Japan and tell Japanese people what they were doing wrong and how they needed to improve.
Race, in general, is a sensitive topic in Japan, and it’s not discussed widely as it is in the US. The ad was pretty tone-deaf in that regard, projecting and imposing an American-centric viewpoint on the rest of the world.
According to The Guardian, Nike’s stock dropped by two percent after the ad was released. It’s unclear how its Japanese ad affected sales in Japan, but many people there were also calling for a boycott.
In 2021, PepsiCo, the parent company of Quaker Oats, announced it was doing away with the Aunt Jemima pancake syrup and replacing the logo and image with Pearl Milling Company.
Aunt Jemima syrup was long a staple in American households. A brand of Quaker Oats, it featured an African-American woman called Jemima.
However, it had long been criticized by the BLM movement and social activists for relying on old imagery and stereotypes left over after slavery, such as the refusal to call African-Americans by the honorific Mr. or Mrs. (hence “Aunt” Jemima).
People also argued that the logo was created during a time when people used racialized stereotypes to sell products.
Jemima was initially portrayed by Nancy Green, who was born into slavery and paid by Quaker to travel around in costume and promote Aunt Jemima. Other women portrayed the character later.
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Was this change effective? What impact did it have on sales and customer loyalty?
According to an Ad Age-Harris poll, 28 percent of consumers said that the change would actually make them less likely to buy the product, while 43 percent said it would not have any impact at all.
Only 23 percent said it would make them more likely to purchase the product.
So, at the end of the day, was it really worth it?
Many people even thought it was crazy that removing a minority woman from a household product was seen as a step forward and a way to promote diversity rather than a step backward. Could it possibly be seen as a form of erasure rather than progress?
Even the family of Lillian Richard, who portrayed Aunt Jemima for many years, had mixed feelings about this, ultimately supporting the decision but hoping Quaker would keep Richard’s legacy alive by releasing a commemorative box featuring Richard and other women who portrayed Jemima over the years.
Pearl Milling Company definitely sounds less catchy than Aunt Jemima, but that’s just me. What do you think? Was it the right step, or was it pandering?
Strange World is a sci-fi film produced by Disney that featured a gay couple. In the movie, a teenage boy tells his father he is in love with another boy.
The film received a lot of controversy, especially as in Florida, it is now illegal for teachers to hold class discussions about sexual and gender orientation. Disney had been trying to repeal that law, so the release of this film hit even harder.
Many people felt that Disney was trying to push sexual identity politics on kids and that it shouldn’t be considered a family-friendly movie. Even many people who support LGBT rights felt that promoting the topic to young kids was not right.
Was the film a success? Definitely not – the film tanked at the box office and was estimated to lose around $147 million.
Trevor Noah is a comedian who is known for his liberal views and his support of various woke movements. He took over Comedy Central’s The Daily Show back in 2015, replacing Jon Stewart.
However, he was an utter failure, according to Fox News. While Stewart enjoyed an average of 2.5 million viewers, Noah couldn’t even get his numbers up to 400,000 in the months prior to his departure.
According to comedian Tim Young, Noah failed because Americans wanted humor and comedy, not lectures on wokeness.
Trevor Noah was much more divisive and political than his predecessor. Even right-wingers often enjoyed Jon Stewart, as he was just funny.
On the other hand, people viewed Trevor Noah as a do-gooder, woke liberal who often made his show about political and social justice issues instead of bringing comedy to people watching late-night television who just wanted a good laugh.
Photo by Pixabay, Pexels
In 2021, Coca-Cola blasted Georgia’s new voter law, which was backed by Republicans and aimed at curbing voter fraud. The law outlined restrictions such as increased ID requirements for absentee ballots, shorter early voting periods, and a prohibition on offering food and drink to voters waiting in line, according to Reuters.
While Coca-Cola wasn’t so vocal about the law at first, it changed course after receiving pressure from activists. It came out against the law, with Coca-Cola CEO calling the law unacceptable, a step backward, and wrong.
According to a Rasmussen Reports survey, though, this stance did not make consumers more likely to buy Coca-Cola – quite the opposite. While 25 percent said they were more likely to buy Coke, a much larger percentage, 37 percent, said they were less likely, while another 30 percent said it didn’t have any effect whatsoever.
It wasn’t just Republicans, either. While more than half of Republican voters surveyed said they were less likely to purchase Coca-Cola products, 38 percent of independents and 24 percent of Democrats also said they were less likely to buy Coke.
Why is that? Perhaps Democrats saw it as empty virtue signaling, being that Coca-Cola is one of the worst companies in the world in terms of producing plastic waste and has been involved in many scandals throughout its history.
I mean, did you know that in the 1990s, Coca-Cola worked with paramilitary death squads in Colombia to assassinate union leaders? Where was all the virtue signaling back then?
Coke’s stock also fell, despite the S&P 500 being up.
We’ve seen the consequences of pandering to leftist ideology, from falling stock prices to boycotts to complete bankruptcy (as in the case of the woke Silicon Valley Bank).
Of course, not all cases of companies collapsing can be directly attributed to their wokeism. Sometimes, failing companies attempt to pander to the woke media to try to improve their brand image, only to find out that it doesn’t help – and they end up going under anyway.
But why doesn’t woke capitalism work in the first place? The answer goes beyond simply alienating a large percentage of your customer base.
The truth is that you can’t make anyone happy with woke activism as a company or large brand. You might get a few positive news articles from the mainstream media, but will you actually make leftists happy?
Remember, liberals don’t care much for capitalism in the first place. According to them, you can’t cover up problems such as carbon emissions, slave labor in China, past scandals, or other “capitalist sins” by publishing a PR piece promoting some woke politician.
Instead, you end up risking becoming a victim of the woke mob yourself. Sooner or later, someone’s going to try to cancel you for something you did in the past, so choose your allies carefully.
Cancel culture is not your friend. By approving of it or even tolerating it, you’re just allowing the problem to fester and letting it harm you in the future.
From a business mindset, politics should be a big no-go zone. If you are silent about an issue, you might receive pressure from a few activist groups, but things will likely quiet down soon enough, and people will forget about it.
After all, you can maintain that your company policy is not to take a stance on political issues.
On the flip side, if you get yourself involved in a scandal and alienate a significant portion of your customer base, that can be hard to fix. Everyone still remembers how Gillette messed up, despite years passing.
Resist the temptation to pander, and your business will do better as a result.
Tom loves to write on technology, e-commerce & internet marketing. I started my first e-commerce company in college, designing and selling t-shirts for my campus bar crawl using print-on-demand. Having successfully established multiple 6 & 7-figure e-commerce businesses (in women’s fashion and hiking gear), I think I can share a tip or 2 to help you succeed.