LIONEL SHRIVER: Less woke, more joke! Woke-washing adverts aren't fooling anyone

LIONEL SHRIVER: Less woke, more joke! Woke-washing adverts aren't fooling anyone

Less woke, more joke! Woke-washing adverts aren’t fooling anyone… brands need to bring back the humour, writes LIONEL SHRIVER 

Stop! Don’t fast-forward. I love this advert!’ How often do you say that? Considering some commercial breaks run to five minutes, not often enough.

How about: ‘Oh no, not again, I can’t stand this advert’? Mmm . . . nightly?

Promotion that strains to impress consumers with a company’s progressive imprimatur is off-putting, according to recent research by The Pull Agency, a brand consultancy.

You always suspected it, but now it’s official: woke advertising backfires.

In a survey of 2,000 representative Britons, 68 per cent were either ‘uneasy’ or ‘unsure’ about brands supporting fashionable Left-wing causes such as climate change, BLM, LGBTQ+, diversity, and female body confidence.

Fifteen per cent would actively avoid buying from firms that publicly endorse those causes via ‘woke-washing’.

To go out on a limb here, I’d venture that even the 32 per cent of respondents who claimed to want brands to posture politically in their promotions would rather watch Cravendale Milk’s hilarious 2011 advert ‘Cats with Thumbs’ than the trendily humourless Nike advert ten years later, in which a black lesbian student celebrates ‘women of colour’ who ‘fight for social justice’.

When asked what firms should do to be socially responsible, 58 per cent of respondents ticked: ‘Pay their taxes, treat people fairly, respect the environment and not use it as a PR opportunity.’

Reebok’s #BeMoreHuman campaign featuring the striking black actress Danai Gurira in a running bra (‘We have to make our shoulders strong enough for somebody else to stand on’) drew flak for promoting the ‘strong black woman trope’ — which, according to a logic that is anything but obvious, was dehumanising

Fifteen per cent would actively avoid buying from firms that publicly endorse those causes via ‘woke-washing’. This infamous 2019 Gillette advert (pictured) critical of ‘toxic masculinity’ dropped sales by 9 per cent

Fifteen per cent would actively avoid buying from firms that publicly endorse those causes via ‘woke-washing’. This infamous 2019 Gillette advert (pictured) critical of ‘toxic masculinity’ dropped sales by 9 per cent

In other words, rather than lecture us, behave well yourself; peddle your product, not your unconvincing high-mindedness.

Only 15 per cent wanted companies to take public stands.

You’d think the advertising industry would have done this homework a while ago — although Pull Agency CEO Chris Bullick reports that when he first mooted the idea of the survey, fellow marketing executives were not keen.

Input ranged from ‘We’d advise strongly against it’ and ‘It could be seen as divisive’ to the perplexing, ‘It isn’t inclusive enough’.

Mad Men’s successors seem taken with their self-important roles as cultural high priests and social engineers — whose remit is much more exhilarating than selling cures for toenail fungus.

Hard statistics demonstrating that they’ve grown incompetent at their real job was the last thing they wanted commissioned.

Because woke advertising unsells products. The infamous 2019 Gillette advert critical of ‘toxic masculinity’ dropped sales by 9 per cent. By contrast, 2007’s artful but apolitical Cadbury advert of a gorilla playing the drums to Phil Collins raised sales by the same rate.

The overkill of racial affirmative action is also misfiring. ‘The unthinking addition of ethnic, and in particular mixed-race couples,’ Bullick writes, ‘is seen by consumers as an “easy win” for lazy advertisers’. His research verified that most people want to see a ‘realistic’ representation of the population as a whole, rather than the pointedly exaggerated casting of minorities so common to today’s commercials that the cliché has become comical.

Yet the application of a little common sense would have obviated The Pull Agency’s survey.

Television adverts are annoying by nature. They interrupt the programme we’re watching and badger us to buy something we don’t necessarily want. To counter our resentment, impatience and inclination to ignore the message altogether, canny marketers make ads as delightful as possible.

Hectoring, moral superiority and the aggressive ramming of a narrow agenda down your audience’s throat are anything but delightful. And like Leftists everywhere, right-on ad execs mistakenly assume that everyone agrees with them.

By contrast, 2007’s artful but apolitical Cadbury advert of a gorilla playing the drums to Phil Collins raised sales by the same rate of 7 per cent

By contrast, 2007’s artful but apolitical Cadbury advert of a gorilla playing the drums to Phil Collins raised sales by the same rate of 7 per cent

Flogging dreary car insurance, MoneySuperMarket’s ‘Epic Dance-Off’ from 2016 was hysterical: men in suit jackets and ties with big bums, tight shorts and high heels boogying with overweight builders

Flogging dreary car insurance, MoneySuperMarket’s ‘Epic Dance-Off’ from 2016 was hysterical: men in suit jackets and ties with big bums, tight shorts and high heels boogying with overweight builders

But all manner of political weirdos, even conservatives, watch TV. Why alienate potential customers when you don’t have to? Worse, these preening promotions insult our intelligence. Adverts are selling stuff. Their aim is profit. To expect us to believe that the true purpose of this expensive communication is to make the world a better place is to take us for fools.

Right, the manufacturer of Oreos doesn’t want us to eat more biscuits; it wants greater acceptance for biracial and lesbian couples. Forget that blather about flame-grilled meat; Burger King is primarily motivated to improve its customers’ mental health. The implied cynicism risks offending the very folks who embrace these causes.

Besides, there’s no pleasing such people. Reebok’s #BeMoreHuman campaign featuring the striking black actress Danai Gurira in a running bra (‘We have to make our shoulders strong enough for somebody else to stand on’) drew flak for promoting the ‘strong black woman trope’ — which, according to a logic that is anything but obvious, was dehumanising.

Politically goody-goody adverts miss the mark especially in tone. They’re earnest. For all partisan persuasions, earnestness is the ultimate buzzkill. (An acquaintance once characterised me as ‘earnest’, and I’ve never been more insulted.) Even Americans prefer irony to sincerity.

Earth to marketing execs: we like adverts that are funny. Again, I’ve no clue why the footage should influence our choice of telecom provider, but Three’s 2014 ‘Sing It Kitty’, in which a lip-synching little girl on a tiny pink push-bike belts out ‘We built this city on ro-ock a-and ro-oll!’, was still a corker.

Flogging dreary car insurance, MoneySuperMarket’s ‘Epic Dance-Off’ from 2016 was hysterical: men in suit jackets and ties with big bums, tight shorts and high heels boogying with overweight builders.

I’ll take that tongue-in-cheek ‘gender fluidity’ any day, and I watched those adverts more than once; they were usually more entertaining than the programme. Even ‘compare the meerkat dot com’ is so dumb it works.

Does advertising matter? Maybe; like it or not, adverts are part of our culture. Unlike lastingly memorable campaigns such as ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing’ (Alka Seltzer 1972) or ‘Whassuuup?’ (Budweiser, 1999), these recent moralising commercials hold up a mirror to a preachy, party-pooping era.

In future, they’re likely to be perceived pityingly as of a piece, unintentionally amusing specimens of a time when marketing became po-faced and self-destructive.

A version of this article first appeared in The Spectator.

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Lionel Shriver

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