The chief executive of Unilever has lashed out at companies that engage in “woke-washing” by using the language and imagery of worthy causes to increase sales, without backing up this rhetoric with action.
Alan Jope, who holds the purse strings to a multibillion-dollar advertising budget for brands such as Dove, Persil, PG Tips and Hellmann’s mayonnaise, said: “Woke-washing is beginning to infect our industry.
“It’s putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues.”
Speaking at a conference in Cannes, the head of the consumer goods company said brands that highlight purpose but do not “walk the talk” could “further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply”.
He added: “Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world.”
A host of major companies have come under fire over concerns that they are trying to cash in on causes seen as “woke” – a term that has come to mean worthy, or aware of social injustice.
Burger King took the opportunity to sell milkshakes after McDonald’s halted sales of the beverage following a spate of incidents in which rightwing figures including Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, had milkshakes thrown over them.
But the fast-food chain was accused of condoning violence after tweeting: “Dear people of Scotland. We’re selling milkshakes all weekend. Have fun.”
One of the most high-profile examples of woke-washing in recent years was an advert for Pepsi featuring Kylie Jenner that co-opted the imagery of Black Lives Matter protests against police violence in the US.
Some fashion companies have been criticised for using plus-size models to cash in on sentiment around body positivity, despite offering very few clothes for people of a similar size.
Earlier this year, the Guardian revealed Spice Girls T-shirts sold to raise money for Comic Relief’s “gender justice” campaign were made at a factory in Bangladesh where women earn the equivalent of 35p an hour.
Mark Borkowski, a branding expert, said: “There’s nothing wrong with having a purpose and a drive, but it has to run through every element of your brand.
“The younger generation are much more aware that they’re being marketed to. Every brand wants that immediate idea that’s going to lift them above the noise, but the messaging and authenticity – really making a change – isn’t easily achieved in the blink of an eye. We all end up even more cynical.”
Unilever spends about £7bn a year on advertising and marketing and has previously spoken out about advertising standards. Last year, the company threatened to withdraw its advertising from platforms such as Facebook and Google if they failed to eradicate extremist content that “create[s] division in society and promote[s] anger and hate”.
But the company has also been criticised for some its attempts to highlight social equality issues, particularly in relation to the Dove skincare brand.
Dove apologised in 2017 after an advert showed a black woman appearing as white after using Dove body lotion, while Unilever also owns Fair & Lovely, a skin-whitening product sold primarily in India.
However, Unilever pointed to its “sustainable living plan”, which the company says is being applied to many of its 400 brands to limit environmental damage and help people improve their health and wellbeing.