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A Brief History of "Woke" Advertising

The world is witnessing a moment of political enlightenment. Eyes are glued to the news, and more people are turning to protesting and civic activity to be the change needed in the world. This motivation doesn't end with people — it also places pressure on brands to speak our language of concern to communicate values in their advertising. The result is what you might call "woke" advertising.

Through heart-tugging commercials and magazine spreads preaching goodness, more and more brands are trying to insert themselves into this age of awareness. The results can be great — like Heineken's recent "Open Your World" ad — or they can be startlingly tone deaf, like Pepsi's recent disaster with Kendall Jenner. The fact is, contemporary advertising that intends to come off as savvy and socially conscious too often comes off like this:

Image Source: NBC

Politics in advertising isn't a new thing, either: advertising that capitalizes on social issues or jumps into the political fray has a long history. Successful or not, these recent ads are of interest because they represent the culmination of decades in advertorial dabbling around social issues. And they prove that no established brand wakes up one day and is "woke" — but it may wake up one day and try too hard.

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1920s-1940s: Selling the American Dream

The dawn of subtly political ads began in the 1920s through 1940s, set to the backdrop of economic depression and a world at war.

The late Roland Marchand, an American historian and UC Davis professor, documented this phenomenon in the book Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940. "The illustrations in American advertising portrayed the ideals and aspirations of the system more accurately than its reality," he wrote of the propagandist nature of ads. "They dramatize the American dream."

Advertisements frequently touted companies' support of war efforts and soldiers, tying a brand's products to the model of American citizenship. Daniel Pope, professor emeritus of history at University of Oregon, says this became the norm for the time period. "Since the early 20th century, there's been a substantial amount of corporate advertising that's basically designed for many purposes," he explained, pointing out that many sought to ratify ideologies. "They stress themes of nationalism or anti-government regulation, or point out during wartime the contribution of the company to the war effort."

1950s-1970s: Brands — and the Government — Enter the Fray

Brands began using ads in many forms to critique or espouse policy views as the decades went on. As William L. Bird Jr. wrote for the Museum of Broadcast Communication, this manifested itself in sponsoring television shows and creating commercials to finesse a company voice. It was all an effort to appear "as good corporate citizens, forward-thinking providers of products, jobs and services, and as active supporters of causes such as environmentalism."

Happening simultaneously was the boom of public service announcements produced by nonprofits and government agencies. These parallel advertisements grew to prominence as the result of an FCC ruling that enforced a ratio of three PSAs for every tobacco commercial. These antismoking advertisements were so effective that cigarette advertisers began withdrawing content as rates of smoking began to fall in the wake of PSAs.

One of the first examples of advertising that employed the power of protest can actually be found in a 1971 Coca-Cola commercial. The commercial featured a mixed group of people singing "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" in unison to suggest that the soda is something that brings people together and represents commonality of human experience. The advertisement was extremely successful and, as Mad Men's inclusion of the ad captured, was a sly co-opting of hippie imagery.

1980s-1990s: Companies Strive For a Do-Gooder Image

Cause-related marketing as we know it today was truly born in the early '80s. Mara Einstein, author of Black Ops Advertising: Native Ads, Content Marketing and the Covert World of the Digital Sell and media studies professor at Queens College, believes American Express was the first to start the shift in 1983 through an advertising effort that raised $1.7 million to restore the Statue of Liberty.

"What happened back then was that the cause wasn't specifically tied to sales of the product," Einstein explained. "It was more within the realm of public relations and it was about making the company overall look good as opposed to being tied one-to-one with the sale of the product."

"That's where this started out," Einstein tied the effort to now since American Express saw an increase in sales. As The New York Times reported in 1986, the move enabled everyone from Coca-Cola to AT&T to Tang to cash in from a higher cause.

As the 1990s approached, Americans looked to corporations to help with issues. Einstein explained: "Corporations were going to be the ones who were going to help solve our social problems and corporations had to be more fiscally responsible. If they were going to do these campaigns, the campaigns had to somehow be tied into the business of what that corporation did."

This lesson wasn't necessarily inspired by consumer demand but by examples some companies made of themselves on what not to do. This was learned most explicitly from Exxon after the Valdez oil spill. "What happened was Exxon suddenly said, 'If we had a relationship with a non-for-profit who dealt in the environmental space, we wouldn't be sitting here not knowing what to do in order to clean this up,'" Einstein said. "There was a change of mind on the part of the corporations to say we need to start tying into these organizations that are connected to what we do so that, should we find ourselves in some kind of catastrophic situation, we might be able to do something about it."

2000s: Consumers Demand Socially Conscious Brands

Both Einstein and Pope note that the rise of ads attached to social causes is the result of groups like millennials and Gen Z-ers thinking harder about what they're purchasing and seeking brands that reflect their beliefs: "I shop, therefore I am" taken to an extreme. This is why TOMS and Warby Parker have succeeded: their image is directly tied to social good.

"Most advertising today is less about claims of the particular product," Pope said. "It's the user rather than the product . . . These are political interventions but they're also interventions to get into a demographic that they hope to sell to."

Mike Sheldon, chairman and CEO of Deutsch North America, also finds that products are less of what's being sold in advertising. "Over the last five, 10, 15 years, corporations have started to realize that it's not just about selling stuff," he explained. "It's not just about top-line revenue and margins: it's about being a good citizen in the world. That goodness is actually good for business, but it's also good for humanity and employees."

When Pepsi attempted to act similarly with social media force Kendall Jenner, it ended up as a disaster, because the message didn't connect with its product. Pair that with the brand's attempt to piggyback on deeply held convictions around politics and social justice, and you have an advertisement that is dead on arrival.

"There are certain things that you cannot co-opt," Einstein said. "It only makes sense for companies to tie into a social cause if they are somehow invested in the social cause . . . What has Pepsi ever done from a political standpoint? Nothing."

Sheldon notes that getting political can be dicey for companies. "Brands need to stay a thousand miles away from anything political," he said. "It's particularly not a good idea today because the country is so divided and sensitive that anything that goes anywhere near politics is a real trap door."

Instead of being political, Sheldon suggests brands stick with being uplifting, inspirational, and aspirational. "It's good for business and it's good for the world," he said. "In today's climate, when it's done right, you can almost get that message out without having to spend a lot of money."

Einstein finds a great example of this in MAC Cosmetics' ongoing Viva Glam campaign: "If MAC Cosmetics wants to say something about the LGBTQ community, they can because they've been donating to that community for 10 years or more."

2017 and Beyond: Brands — Like People — Will Change

Smarter consumers will eventually lead to smarter brands and smarter, actually woke ads. Examples of this can already be found with Interface, a carpet manufacturer who promised to become a sustainable product by 2020, and Seventh Generation, an eco-friendly cleaning company working to ensure the health of the next seven generations.

Brands must put their money where their mouths are — and that stretches well beyond advertising. According to Einstein, the real change Pepsi or a similar brand could have made was by investing in local communities, showing a commitment to having people of color in leadership positions within the company, and actively refusing to support politicians and measures that stifle equality.

Pope also urges consumers to think, to believe in their values, and to always approach brands with skepticism. "Do we want our values to be influenced or appealed to in order to sell products to us?" he said. "I, of course, tend to share those values but I don't particularly believe in LGBT rights because Heineken tells me to."

"One always wants to read ads with a bit of critical distance — or ignore them," Pope added. "An awful lot of advertising doesn't get over the consciousness threshold at all."

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