Woke corporations: responsible capitalism or virtue signalling?

Saturday 2 November, 10:0011:30, Auditorium 1Ideology in the 21st century


In the run-up to the EU elections this year, Burger King caused controversy when the firm tweeted to say it was selling milkshakes and encouraged customers to ‘have fun’. The context was the trend for throwing milkshakes at right-wing politicians. While Burger King issued a clarification saying it did not endorse violence and insisted the tweet was light-hearted, it seems marketeers at Burger King thought they could cash in on the ‘milkshaking’ phenomenon to boost the company’s image.

Although somewhat frivolous, the example illustrates a growing trend among the world’s biggest companies to weigh in on social issues. In 2018, Nike produced an advert featuring Colin Kaepernick, a divisive NFL star famous for kneeling during the US national anthem as a protest against racism. Earlier this year, Gillette produced an advert aimed at challenging ‘toxic masculinity’, and subsequently released another advert featuring a father helping a transgender son to shave. In perhaps the most infamous example of all, in 2017, Pepsi released an advert with Kylie Jenner healing divisions at a protest march. The advert was widely condemned for appropriating the legacy of the civil-rights movement.

Of course, advertisers using the cachet of social causes is not entirely new. In 1929, advertising guru Edward Bernays paid a group of women to turn up to the Easter Sunday parade in New York and violate the social taboo on women smoking in public, proclaiming the cigarettes were ‘torches of freedom’. Bernays was working for American Tobacco, which had little interest in female empowerment, but did want to sell more cigarettes to women.

Today, however, many companies seem genuinely to care about social causes. Unilever, one of the world’s biggest companies, has made ambitious environmental commitments that are priorities at all levels of the company. Tesla is famously driven by a vision of creating electric cars to help avoid climate change. Human resources departments across the world are sensitive to gender and equality issues. As well as big companies, small businesses that proudly advertise their social mission are thriving.

For some observers, this is evidence of a genuine shift in how businesses think about their role, often underpinned by new generations of employees demanding change. But critics have condemned what’s been called ‘woke capitalism’ or even ‘wokewashing’. For some, it is offensive for businesses to try to make a profit by appropriating the language of social causes for which people have, and continue, to suffer. More darkly, some suggest that by getting on board with ‘woke’ messaging, companies hope to avoid more transformative changes such as paying more tax.

What’s behind the rise of ‘woke capitalism’? Is it a cynical attempt to curry favour with the lucrative millennial market, or should we celebrate demonstrations of corporate conscience? Should companies, especially in times of sluggish productivity, focus instead on producing good products? Does the rise of marketing over making tell us something about capitalism today? What, more broadly, should be the line between business and politics and should employees demand freedom from politics while at work? What does the rise of woke capitalism tell us about the prospects and possibilities for more radical change today?