Are “Woke” Ads Helpful Or Hurtful?

No matter what your political beliefs are, there’s something we can definitely agree on: There is a lot of political unrest in America right now. Political unrest can lead to a lot of things; protests, social media movements, statements from influential people, conspiracy theories. Oh, and it’s apparently a great opportunity to advertise.

Let me explain.

Over the past few years (long before Donald Trump became president) a batch of feminist-hinting advertisements were created to appeal to female consumers who have felt the pressure of measuring up to flawless, thin, white models their whole lives. Some of the ads were more tame, like Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, some were more controversial, like Secret’s #StressTest commercial about the wage gap, and some were impossible not to love, like Always’ ‘Like a Girl’ ad. Companies realized that people are totally over ads that sexualize or objectify women as jokes or marketing ploys. We want the real stuff. According to a SheKnows Media 2016 study, 90% of women believe that ads showing women purely as sex symbols are harmful, and 53% of women have purchased products because of pro-woman advertising.

Fast forward several years and, in the age of Trump, a new kind of feel-good advertisement has arisen: advertisements that promote unity in a time of unrest. You’ve probably heard about the infamous Pepsi commercial in which Kendall Jenner resolves a standoff with a police officer at a Black Lives Matter-esque rally by simply smiling and handing him a Pepsi. There was also the Heineken commercial in which people with polar-opposite views regarding climate change, feminism, and trans rights discussed their differences over a few beers.

Some of these ads were well liked, some were vehemently hated and ridiculed, and some experienced waves of mixed approval. Sometimes with ads like these, it’s really hard to pinpoint what’s impactful and what missed the mark, but it’s also good practice to try and figure it out. Learning from the mistakes and successes of others when it comes to talking about tough issues can help you avoid being unintentionally offensive or disrespectful in your own life. Let’s take a closer look at a few examples:

Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ Commercial

This is one of the many body-positive advertisements of the past several years, and a lot of people found the video extremely moving and emotional. It is, after all, something that many women can relate to: an inherent belief that we’re not beautiful. When you take a closer look, however, this commercial gets more complicated.

First of all, the ad still enforces specific ideas of beauty. When the women realize that the drawing described by others is more beautiful than the drawing they described themselves it does indeed prove that women are often too hard on themselves, but it still confirms hyper-specific beauty standards that having a big nose or a very angular face, as shown in the self-described portraits, are ‘ugly.’ We should find a way to celebrate our own appearance without comparing or putting down any other possible appearance. Secondly, Dove may be a skincare brand that is encouraging positive body image and loving yourself, but it is owned by the same company that owns Axe bodyspray, a product notorious for commercials that objectify women. This does make you question the company’s motives: do they really care about what’s best for women, or are they just doing whatever the heck will make money? And if their pro-woman cause someday stopped making them money, would they hop back on the photoshopped model train?

The Pepsi/ Kendall Jenner Commercial

Tone deaf,” “appropriative” and “sugar coated” are a few terms that have been used to describe this ad. It caused such an online outrage that Pepsi quickly removed the video. There are many reasons that it was not well received, but here’s a summary of a few.

The protest in the Pepsi ad was seemingly trying to emulate a Black Lives Matter protest, but with signs that read “join the conversation” or simply had peace signs on them rather than the real life “hands up don’t shoot” or “Black lives matter.” The fact that they completely softened and neglected the real issues that have killed and hurt real people shows that they actually don’t care about the Black Lives Matter movement; they just thought the setting was a trendy and cool way to promote some soda. Meanwhile, in real life, protesters have been pepper-sprayed and arrested. And the fact that all of the injustice was seemingly resolved when Kendall Jenner handed a police officer a Pepsi is insulting; racism cannot be solved with soda no matter how many followers the celebrity spokesperson has on Instagram.

The Heineken “Worlds Apart” Ad

Shortly after the Pepsi ad, Heineken also released a commercial relevant to the political division in America. Some people called it “the ani-Pepsi ad” because they thought it got right what Pepsi got wrong. And while the commercial does have a unifying message of discussing and overcoming differences, the real world is not that simple.

For one, as it was said by the great Audre Lord in “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, the oppressed should not be expected to educate their oppressors as it is a “primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.” This was one of the major arguments against the ad: the trans woman was expected to defend her existence against a man who said “that’s not right” and “you can’t” be transgender. It’s true that she could have chosen to leave, but seeing how it was a simulated environment that was being filmed, there was likely some pressure not to stay.

In summary, it’s often hard to decide whether an ad that embraces feminism or social justice issues is helpful or harmful. Even if the ad sends a good message and starts a bigger conversation, it’s still an ad. Its primary purpose is still to make money from selling an often unrelated product. The best we can do is analyze what harms and what hurts, and choose how to respond: by either buying the products and showing support or maybe using social media as an opportunity to let the company know where they missed the mark.

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