Climate Change, Social Issues, and ‘Woke Advertising’: Is It Right For Your Company?

As the world changes, so too does digital advertising – clearly, given that the ads people respond well to reflect the concerns and feelings of society at large.

While there was a culture in the nineties and 2000s of focusing on the self, and on smaller, more personal concerns, now people at large are getting more socially and politically active, and we’ve all seen digital ads that discuss or mirror this. Some of these ads have been called collectively ‘woke advertising’, after the slang adjective for someone who cares about issues affecting society.

Whether it’s the imminent threat of climate change, the wish for diversity and greater tolerance, or a rejection of old values and principles, many major brands have adopted social issues for their own campaigns. This can have positive and negative effects for a brand, and here we will look into how you can decide whether or not to include it in your brand’s campaigns in the future.

Some Background: How Did We Get Here?

In the past few years, we’ve seen a shift in how brands publicise themselves and their products. Advertisers are increasingly including topics of global significance in their campaigns. While these campaigns have had mixed results, some have truly resonated with consumers seeking meaning in their interactive advertising.

Man looking concerned in front of grey skyline
Photo: Andrew Neel on Unsplash

We talked before about why it might be that advertising is moving towards taking a stand on real-life issues – it’s partly down to Generation Z having a large disposable income, and having markedly different values to the people who came before them.

Teenagers and twentysomethings are digital natives, raised with the idea of sharing feelings on social media, and so the expectation is that brands will also reflect this authenticity or ‘realness’.

There is also a feeling that consumers in general are more politically engaged than was the case until recently. With so many pressing issues on which to take a stance, it makes sense that it is now seen as essential for people to have an opinion on what is happening.

How Can You Make Socially Aware Ads, and Why?

The way that Swedish activist Greta Thunberg caught the public imagination with her encouragement of peaceful direct action over climate change has been reflected in some more climate-aware advertising of late.

A power station with smoke coming out of its towers
Photo: Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

It took a while for advertising to catch up with the changing political and social situation around the world, but as campaigns from large conglomerates have demonstrated, to varying acclaim, how multinational corporations now feel that people need to know their opinion on more than just their own bottom line.

Effectively, ads are now viewed as a digital billboard for how companies feel about topics. There may not be an expectation of an opinion, but a stance on a controversial issue is more common than it once was. If you want to get maximum value for your online advertising CPM, engaging people’s hearts and minds is a great start.

It’s not easy, as you might imagine, to make your ads speak to the consumer with an authentic social conscience. However, if you want to do it, there are a few important things to remember.

Adopt Issues that Resonate With Your Brand

Think carefully about what your brand represents in your eyes and the eyes of your customers. If you are active in an industry that traditionally has been damaging to the environment, such as a car manufacturer, relating your clean diesel engine, or your new electric car, to the need to be responsible amid the climate crisis might be a good course of action.

Porsche Taycan front view
Photo: David von Diemar on Unsplash

If, however, your brand has little or no obvious link with climate change, mentioning it in an ad might seem forced or, worse, fake. Consumers are more savvy than ever nowadays, and they can see right through an attempt to step into a debate that a brand has no place in doing.

Are you a brand that, as with leading sports clothing and shoe manufacturers, relies on capturing the zeitgeist, and on reflecting the views of a young audience, or one that wishes it was young? Sports brands cater to aspirational people who want to feel good about exercise, and who want to look good while they’re doing it. This means not only showing the products, but tying them into a wider, positive, narrative.

Some of the world’s biggest brands have tied themselves into socially aware campaigns looking at equality and diversity issues. These are part of an attempt to show that their brand appeals to everyone, and can be worn by a wide range of people.

Do Plenty of Research

The biggest clothing brands do millions of dollars of market research to make sure their message ‘plays’ well with the people they want to sell to. While not all companies have this kind of budget for online marketing, it’s necessary to do as much research as you possibly can so you know your message won’t go down like a lead balloon with consumers.

People in a brainstorming meeting with a computer screen and a notice board with Post-Its
Photo: You X Ventures on Unsplash

As well-intentioned as your message might be, you can’t be too careful when it comes to your brand equity.

The Drawbacks of ‘Woke’ Advertising’

As we have seen, advertisers can be praised for the stance they take in socially-aware ads, but equally this form of campaign is a high-risk strategy, with the possibility it could all backfire. Whether we like it or not, all businesses advertise because they want to make more money. There is a calculation to be made as to whether companies feel supporting a certain cause is likely to be profitable or not.

This is why many brands choose to support a less controversial cause such as preventing climate change; although there are people who deny that climate change is man-made, the majority believe that it is, and most individual consumers want to feel the positivity that comes from feeling that their buying choice has been ‘better for the environment’ than the alternative.

Whatever social issue becomes the subject of an ad campaign, the advertiser must be mindful of the potential impact of that campaign. This is the double-edged sword of making socially aware digital ads. On the one hand, do it well, and the ad might win plaudits for its handling of a debate in a way that resonates with a generation; on the other, mishandle an important issue, and customers can be lost to other brands.

The Key Takeout

Consumers, especially Gen-Z consumers, find it easy to detect authenticity, or the lack of it. This means that if something seems insincere, it will repel rather than attract customers. We’ve seen this with countless campaigns, and the key lesson seems to be that, if you want to enter the world of socially aware interactive advertising, you should make sure you understand the issue inside-out.

A polar bear floating on a piece of ice looks at a penguin floating on another
Our representation of the effects of climate change (Sten Kivisaar / Nexd)

Speak to the audience you want to attract, research how they feel about the issue, and reflect their views, but not in a patronising or hectoring way. Sounds difficult? It is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give it a try, and your reward might be a new group of people who truly believe in the message your company conveys.

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