Unilever CEO warns of ‘woke-washing’ ads

July 01, 2019

Unilever’s new chief executive, Alan Jope, has warned against brands attempting to advertise products using a loose link to a political stance. Speaking at this year’s Cannes Lions creative marketing communications festival, held earlier this month, Jope argued that too many brands are launching campaigns that do not align with what the brand actually does in practice. This, according to Jope, constitutes a form of “woke-washing” whereby a brand makes an unsubstantiated claim of alertness to societal injustice, while not actually engaging in action to improve the issue.

Increasingly, companies are attempting to tap into the growing consumer appetite for brands that champion a cause. The claim of “woke-washing” calls into question the authenticity of ads that centre on a brand “taking the right side” on an issue. While Jope mentioned no specific examples, the much-maligned 2017 Pepsi advert [change to ad], in which reality TV star Kendall Jenner transforms a riot into a party by giving a can to a policeman, could be accused of woke-washing.

Importantly, Unilever’s CEO highlighted the need for a strong corporate purpose that can back up claims to “wokeness”. Corporate Citizenship’s research with global business leaders, reveals a clear consensus about the value of purpose. Yet it also shows that purpose is in danger of becoming confused, clichéd and contaminated. To speak authentically on purpose, businesses must examine their fundamental reasons for existing, and instil change from the very top.

“Done properly, done responsibly, [purpose] will help us restore trust in our industry, unlock greater creativity in our work, and grow the brands we love,” said Jope. Companies attempting to take a political stance must walk the talk.


Image source: Kaepernick warms up before a game in 2014 by PeakDill is liensed under CC BY-SA 4.0