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How Woke Capitalism Is Cashing In On Social Movements

Kendall Jenner in the controversial 2017 Pepsi Ad. Image YouTube Videograb

It is April 2017 and Pepsi has just released a commercial. Seemingly a rather harmless, innocent commercial that shows people of minority communities uniting and integrating over a can of Pepsi with Kendall Jenner as the face of the advert.

The advert becomes so controversial within no time that Pepsi eventually has to take the ad off.

What went wrong?

Enter January 2019, something similar happens with another advert. Gillette comes out with an advertisement for its razors portraying men teaching the correct form of masculinity to young kids. The aim was to take a dig at the ‘toxic masculinity’ notion, with the #metoo movement in full swing at the moment.

But what went wrong with Gillette’s innocent looking motive that the ad faced severe backlash and major criticism from all those part of the social movement?

In its 2019 Ad, Gillette portrayed men teaching the correct form of masculinity to young kids. Image : YouTube Videograb

To answer both these questions, it is very important first to understand what the issue at hand in both these cases was—something the modern age refers to as ‘woke capitalism’.

As Wikipedia puts it :

“Woke is a political term of African American origin that refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice. It is derived from the African American Vernacular English expression “stay woke”, whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues.”

Pretty self explanatory as it is, woke capitalism refers to the capitalist, profit driven approach followed by corporations—capitalising on the stir and popularity of social movements to achieve their ends.

Just as consumerism gets the best of capitalism, so does this aspect of capitalism wherein capitalising on the social movements many times, inherently contradicts what an entire social movement stands for, something truly bad for a capitalist society to go through.

To understand why people are against woke capitalism, we first need to understand why it is a bad thing for the social movements in question.

For perspective, look at the Pepsi ad. The ad starts out with showing people in a protest/demonstration to change societal norms (Black Lives Matter was one of the portrayals). Now the entire problem starts when you show something as rampant and serious as a social revolution with people dancing and rejoicing, as though they were celebrating it. It comes as no surprise then, that social movements will get intimidated by it.

The real dynamite though, that caused the real harm was the moment when Kendall Jenner hands out a can of Pepsi to the line of police that is shown in the ad. The scene was a portrayal of Iesha Evans, a black woman who bravely stood up to police in riot gear at a BLM protest in Baton Rouge. Now when the same intense moment is portrayed as Kendall offering a Pepsi can to the police and them immediately accepting it as though putting an end to police brutality and other problems the stakeholders have stood for, things go well out of hand.

Iesha Evans, a black woman who bravely stood up to police in riot gear at a BLM protest in Baton Rouge. Image by Jonathan Bachman via Twitter

It becomes immediately obvious why social movements would have an innate opposition to such a portrayal of them. When you portray a can of Pepsi solving the entire problem of police brutality, the entire problem that the black people have had with the state, it sort of normalises the entire notion the movement stands for, it misrepresents the movement, it undermines the grave seriousness of the issue at hand.

The same thing happens when Gillette comes out with its commercial. Playing on the toxic masculinity notion, people are bound to feel why someone like Gillette should have an authority to lecture them on masculinity. What is Gillette’s real contribution to the #metoo movement? What efforts has Gillette taken to empower women besides changing its tagline to suit its own profit driven motive?

Now someone might argue that it is beneficial for social movements to have someone like these companies portray them so that they can garner massive outreach. While this argument is valid, why it cannot stand is because it is extremely difficult for any advertisement to capitalise the movement without misrepresentation, let alone the fact that the company might not have even taken any real efforts that helped the cause in the first place. What such instances get wrong are that social movements are not publicity stunts, there are entire lives of people at stake, there is a purpose for which the movement stands.

There lies a subtle bit of woke capitalism in many ads we see today and there is a thin line for when the demerits of it massively outweigh the benefits of it to both the company and the movement.

So, the next time you see an advert that capitalises on a social movement, question its legitimacy, revisit the seriousness of the issue at hand, understand that the only way in which companies will know that capitalising on sensitive public sentiments is a bad thing is when you question the veracity of it instead of getting swayed by it. Because while it doesn’t seem much, it can cost a lot of people their life’s purpose for something as trivial as a pitch for a razor blade.

Stay Woke.

Created by Hrishikesh Athalye

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