Authenticity Merchants

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Illustration by Hadley Hooper

The rise (and fall) of woke branding.

By Michael Serazio

Last April, the rap metal and country rock singer Kid Rock posted a half-minute clip to the platform then known as Twitter.

In it, Rock, sporting a backwards MAGA ballcap, announced, with a coiled smile, that he was feeling “a little frisky” but would be as “clear and concise as possible.” Twisting away from the camera, Rock cocked his assault rifle and unloaded a torrent of bullets, annihilating a stack of Bud Light cases in the distance. Strutting offscreen, he flung a middle-finger and pair of f-bombs toward Anheuser-Busch to punctuate the performance.

The clip racked up more than 50 million views.

America’s culture wars are, generally, more metaphor than literally militarized, but Rock saw fit to bring a gun to an ideological fight. That the bullets passed through the cans was also metaphor, albeit macabre: Rock’s actual target was transgender rights; Bud Light was just the commercial vessel absorbing his outburst.

What triggered him?

Earlier that month, the popular beer brand had partnered with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney, who posed for product placement in her videos as part of a promotional contest. That ignited ferocious conservative backlash, including celebrity calls for a boycott, a marked sales slump, and online attacks against Mulvaney.

In many ways, the Bud Light kerfuffle was the most dramatic example of a surprising recent shift in corporate posturing. In a fashion previously unimaginable—given the presumed marketplace advantage of selling to left and right alike—brands have been marching toward activist poses, some more idiosyncratic than others: Procter & Gamble and Black Lives Matter; Delta and gun control; Burger King and net neutrality. (“The Internet should be like the Whopper sandwich: the same for everyone”—get it?) By one estimate, over the last decade politicized ads have quadrupled during the Super Bowl, Madison Avenue’s premier occasion to reflect the national zeitgeist.

The shortest explanation for this trend, as with so much in today’s culture, is Donald Trump W’68. In the aftermath of his election, for example, Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Airbnb, and 84 Lumber all issued pro-immigration declarations during the big game. But the 45th president doesn’t fully account for what’s going on. Neither does a supposed outbreak of a “woke mind virus” in Fortune 500 boardrooms, as some bewildered conservatives seem to fear. A far more persuasive answer is hiding in plain sight amid the oldest dictum in advertising: know your customers and what they want.

And what obsesses American consumers these days is the notion of authenticity. Survey research by pollster John Zogby finds that the desire for authenticity tops the list of America’s political and cultural yearnings. Much as we want our elected leaders, reality TV stars, and social media influencers to come off as “authentic,” we now expect the same of the brands on our shelves.

Historically, buyers might have been swayed by a product’s features and benefits—i.e. what a consumer good actually does. “Now, societal issues have become brand attributes … in terms of product purchase,” one PR executive told me as I researched my latest book, The Authenticity Industries.

To be sure, what a product supposedly says about the buyer has long been at branding’s core. American companies are old hands at disguising commodities as markers of personal identity: Bud Light for armchair quarterbacks, for instance, and Busch Light for NASCAR fans. But lately the dynamic has extended from lifestyle identities to identity politics (or “societal issues,” if you prefer).

Pollsters have found that one-third of Americans care as much about brands’ political positions as the products themselves, and two-thirds would switch brands because of them. These patterns are amplified among millennials and Generation Z.

In that context it’s no wonder that Adweek implores marketers to strategize a “moral framework—some foundation of what a brand believes in and believes is worth fighting for.” Nor is it surprising that almost 200 leading chief executives signed onto a Business Roundtable announcement declaring that the purpose of a corporation should not be limited exclusively to the pursuit of shareholder interest.

Milton Friedman, the high priest of neoliberalism who pledged profit as a business’s foremost societal responsibility, may have rolled over in his grave over that last one. Or maybe not—because making a corporation seem like it “authentically” cares about more than just making money turns out to be a lucrative game. Brands seen as “purpose-driven” reportedly doubled their value and growth relative to competitors with “weaker” virtue-signaling, according to a recent analysis by Ad Age. Go woke, go broke? Maybe for Bud Light, but not always and everywhere.

One reason brands have pivoted toward this strategy is the slow-motion collapse of traditional forms of advertising. A process that had been fairly stable and straightforward—make ad, place ad—got thrown into disarray by digital developments: the cratering of local newspapers; the commercial deprivation of streaming models; the deployment of filtering technologies; and the laughable impotence of banner advertising. One industry cliché jokes that you’ve got better odds of surviving a plane crash than someone actually clicking on your display ad.

And even if you somehow manage to get the marketing message in front of the target’s eyeballs, they’ll usually roll backwards with default disbelief—if not outright cynicism. But that’s not to say that consumers don’t want to believe in something.

“[Consumers] are laying more at the feet of brands,” one chief strategy officer speculated to me. “They think and believe and expect brands to be able to make the change in the world that the government institutions cannot.”

It is either tragic or comical (or both?) that consumers would look to companies to solve problems—both public and spiritual—where representative democracy and formal faith have floundered. As Sarah Banet-Weiser, the Walter H. Annenberg Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn, has argued, even though “commodity activism”—that is, performing politics through consumption habits—traces a decades-long history, converting social movements into branding fodder has a way of subverting them, redirecting the energies of collective democratic action toward individual and idiosyncratic pursuits.

Still, from longtime practitioners of purpose (say, Ben & Jerry’s environmentalism) to epic failures of it (think Pepsi and Starbucks gauchely piggybacking on Black Lives Matter), brand politics seek to replenish that void of belief in society’s institutions and respond to newly politicized cultural domains.

Curiously, consumers themselves seem to be sorting along stark partisan divides. For example, despite Levi’s and Wrangler originating, in common, among cowboys and railroad workers, the latter are now far more likely to be worn by Republicans and the former by Democrats (perhaps owing to the pro-immigration, anti-gun stances that earned Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh death threats).

Other companies have capitalized on the market potential of conservative consumers alienated by that perceived “woke” turn that Bud Light and Mulvaney represented—from Chick-fil-A to Hobby Lobby to the Black Rifle Coffee Company’s anti-Starbucks ambition to become a “cool, kind of irreverent, pro-Second Amendment, pro-America brand in the MAGA era,” as its cofounder mused.

Values that once derived from where you prayed or how you voted now arrive from where you shop, as retailers pose as “arbiters of public morality” on issues they never wanted to touch before.

All this positions companies a long way from happily, apolitically, selling to both sides of the aisle. Republicans might buy sneakers, too, as Michael Jordan famously averred, but Nike now sees it as inauthentic not to believe in something—even if, as their award-winning Colin Kaepernick campaign noted, that means sacrificing everything. (Not all causes, however, are necessarily created equal: When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, you heard nary a peep from most corporations, nor has the recent crisis in Israel and Gaza elicited much branding opportunism.)

And most of the time, none of this is actually selling the product, which is apt.

After all, commercial self-interest is precisely what advertisers must forever endeavor to obfuscate if they want to come across as “authentic.” Hence, TikTok’s slogan advice for brands: “Don’t make ads, make TikToks.” Hence, Patagonia telling shoppers in one famous Black Friday ad: “Don’t buy this jacket.”

In a crowded marketplace—and a landscape of social anomie—brands now have to hawk identity as much as material goods. The pretense of activism might humanize that commerce. Yet to believe that a brand actually has an authentic soul?

Don’t fall for that pitch.

Michael Serazio ASC’10 is an associate professor of communication at Boston College and the author of, most recently, The Authenticity Industries: Keeping it ‘Real’ in Media, Culture & Politics, from which this essay is adapted with permission of Stanford University Press.

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