Pride or Pander? The truth behind ‘Woke Capitalism’

woke capitalism rainbow washing

by | Jul 5, 2021

Land of the woke, the capitalists and the people who love

June is celebrated as Pride month every year commemorating the Stonewall Uprising of 1969 where members of LGBTQIA+ community came together against violence and brutality caused by the police in New York City. Come June, every year there is a Rainbow efflux from everywhere on social media platforms –  people from or outside the community celebrate, educate and spread awareness on what Pride truly means. Riding the wave, small and big corporations post rainbows in solidarity thereby,  becoming part of a “trend” started by a handful of big corporations in the past. But do any of these corporations know what Pride really is?!

In June 2019, Starbucks released a commercial which received backlash from the people of LGBTQIA+ community. The story opens up with a trans girl named Jemma who gets called with her name (given to her at the time of birth) on several occasions and she quietly sweeps with sadness within her whenever it happens until she arrives at one Starbucks store where the Barista asks for her name and she spells it out loud ‘James’.

‘Every name’s a story’ by Starbucks UK

In June 2021, Levi’s released a commercial “All Pronouns. All Love.”, it is a monologue with different voices saying, ‘Just let go of whatever you think you know, we have been on this Earth for a blink of an eye, how could we expect to understand everything’ ‘It’s so amazing to grow into this generation, everything is so fluid’ ‘My liberation is wrapped up in your liberation, do you think you are free well you are not until I am’

‘All pronouns, All love’ by Levi’s

What is inherently wrong in all these ad commercials? The simple answer to this question is that these stories are not authentic at its core. In an attempt to capitalize on social movements, corporations and brands bombard the internet with communication that leave the audience divided on whether they care or is it just a marketing gimmick. Folks from the LGBT+ community are often able to peel off those layers of the fairy tale embellishments that are very far from reality.

Being true to your brand ideology and identity should come rather easily then, why do brands choose to disagree and tread on a path that is sometimes insensitive, misleading, and misappropriated? Social movements all across the world don’t look pretty at any time of the day. They are full of resilience, pain, struggles and damage which is more mental than physical. Brands and companies know that they can’t trick people into buying their products if they make their audience, well, just sad. They have to strike a right balance with reality and relatability. As renowned copywriter Steve Harrison said, brands need to identify the problem of prospective consumers and then offer a solution solved by the ‘product’ they are selling in the ad campaigns. In reality, it is difficult to show where your product stands as a solution to the problems that social movements represent because of which brands end up delivering messages that are not reading the issues correctly. Lack of understanding of the issue does not only show poor taste, lack of knowledge, but it also speaks volumes about how far brands can go to encash each opportunity they get on social media platforms all year round. With big production houses and lots of money, brands whitewash these movements (also known as rainbow-washing) and want people to believe that they are with them through their troughs and crests. This is what woke capitalism is!

Before diving into the dirty spectacle of Woke Capitalism it is important to understand it’s roots. The term Woke Capitalism was coined by American political analyst Ross Douthat for his contribution in the New York Times in 2015. According to him, woke capitalism has become a tool for companies signaling their support for progressive causes in order to maintain their influence in the society. The concept is fresh because previously companies believed that products would sell for their utility, quality and sometimes affordability. With the rise in the number of social movements, more and more people are being aware of what is “morally” right and wrong. People realize the magnanimity of their purchasing power which can ultimately bring any corporation to its knees. A shift from an impulsive buying behavior to complex buying behavior has been observed. This behavior is growing especially among the millennials and Gen Z’s who want to know what their go-to brand is doing for the community, and hence shop responsibly for even the most insignificant things.

Several commercials across the digital & ATL platforms aim to tell a story and build a connection, but with woke capitalism the hidden agenda is to monetize on emotions, struggles and, to an extent, any trauma their ‘consumer bank’ has been through. As a corporation they have a need to integrate products in the story, but this calls for the question- at what cost? In this day and age, the narrative of a story takes precedence over the product you are selling, and year after year brands are using social movements to acquire capital gains. Consequently, it translates as tiring, bogus and cliché to the people who may or may not belong to the community. Diluting years of struggle to a cup of coffee which is unassuming and sold at an unreasonably outlandish price does not sit well amongst the woke consumers. Empowering a person who is struggling to find a place in a homophobic society with a rainbow clad Levi’s t-shirt does little than just a flick of the wand.

In contrast, not all brands are infected by the same bug. Some are trying to take stock of what the consumer wants and how it should be offered to them. In 2020, an ad film by Oreo showcased the array of emotions and feelings every parent faces when their child comes out of the closet. The protagonists, Jen and Amy are a real life couple, featured in the film. When Jen brings Amy to her home for the first time, the anxiety & challenge that every same sex couple faces to bring their partner home is beautifully depicted in the film. The campaign ‘Proud Parent’ is noteworthy here, not because the ad film has gravitas to it but because of the partnership that Oreo established with PFLAG National, an organization that works in connecting people of LGBTQIA+ community with their parents. The LGBT+ community has been subjected to a lot of communication from the mainstream media about being proud of who they are and live the life the way they want. While the time has come to move forward and show the world that people of all gender and sexual orientation can be affirming and compassionate together, brands must help spread the message responsibly via their overflowing bank accounts and reach which is sure to plant a food for thought in the minds of the impressionable.

‘Proud Parent’ by Oreo

To conclude, it’s not really the band of colors that queer community needs in order to live in a place where they are given due respect and love. They need change that can elevate their lives from established (and outdated) socio-economic frames. When multi-million-dollar brands speak on social movements, they must look at the bigger picture as well. Highlighting the issue is sometimes not enough, putting efforts and contributions towards it is what really counts and makes a difference.

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Siddhant Baranwal

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