• Patrick Foster

4 Examples Of 'Woke' Marketing Gone Wrong

Brands are increasingly cottoning on to the pulling power of woke marketing, both as a way of drawing in customers and enhancing their branding. Socially-savvy marketing positions brands as progressive and forward-thinking, and it is possible to achieve a woke marketing campaign that works. But woke marketing is a tricky thing. Time and time again, we see otherwise savvy brands clumsily attempt to seem woke, only to eventually fall flat.

Here are four examples of woke marketing gone wrong — approach with caution...


A more recent (and divisive) example of woke marketing can be found in the infamous Gillette’s We Believe ad.

Using the brand’s ‘the best a man can get’ slogan as a jumping off point, the ad explored issues of toxic masculinity, bullying, sexism, and sexual harassment. Shots of boys fighting and men catcalling women in the street were interspersed with real news segments and YouTube clips touching on sexual misconduct and other issues.

Many critics praised the brand’s direct address of current issues and reinforcement of positive social values. However, not everyone approved, and the ad was criticised by many.

The advert never mentions any Gillette products, and it was viewed by many as simply heavy-handed virtue-signalling. Others saw the ad as an implicit criticism of men (and thus their customer base), serving no function except to criticise and alienate rather than inspire.

How to get it right.

If Gillette had exercised restraint in its attempt to address issues of toxic masculinity, the ad might have worked. However, the brand went overboard, completely missing the mark.

If you want to attempt woke marketing, nuance is key — these issues are rarely black and white, so proceed with caution and sensitivity in your ad.

Creating experience-led marketing is a valid strategy for engaging consumers, but only when done right. Gillette took this too far, and failed to relate its product back to its message. As a result, the ad felt jarring and isolated. If you want to align your brand with a social cause, it pays to make it relevant (Burger King’s Proud Whopper is a fine example of this).

Victoria’s Secret Take a moment to consider this Victoria’s Secret ad from 2014, promoting the lingerie brand’s new Body range of bras:

(Image source: The Independent)

What you might notice (but Victoria’s Secret failed to) is that each of these ‘perfect bodies’

belong to virtually identical women of the same weight, height, and skin colour. Naturally, the ad was met with considerable scorn. In its mission to make its bras inclusive and universal, the brand actually alienated many women who didn’t fit into this narrow body type group.

A petition on change.org called on the brand to apologise and amend the advert, claiming that it “promotes low self-esteem among women who are made to feel that their bodies are inadequate and unattractive because they do not fit into this narrow standard of beauty.” Following this petition, Victoria’s Secret subsequently changed the slogan to “A Body For Every Body”.

How to get it right. The slogan alone is fine. And even the photo itself, while not representative of the variety of body types out there, might have passed muster on its own. But together, the copy and imagery conflicted, and made for an ad that was less woke, and more sound asleep.

Frankly, this should have been picked up well before it was published. Go through your final product thoroughly and get it signed off by each different department before it goes live. Give everyone a chance to offer their opinions — if there’s even the slightest bit of doubt, go back to the drawing board.


You probably remember personal care brand Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. Born out of a desire to highlight beauty in all its forms, the campaign began with an inspiring ad that asked women to compare their own descriptions of themselves with those of strangers.

It was widely praised, lauded for its nuance and sensitivity in addressing such a delicate issue. Unfortunately, this was where Dove peaked. The brand followed up their Real Beauty Sketches campaign be launching a collection of shampoo bottles in a variety of shapes and sizes — tall, curvy, pear-shaped, and so on — with the aim of celebrating different body shapes.

(Image source: Washington Post)

The campaign was met with considerable backlash, with critics accusing Dove of oversimplifying the issue. Reducing women’s bodies to seven types (all of which are white, as some critics pointed out) lacked nuance and sensitivity.

How to get it right.

Dove started off so well, but failed to continue their success. Extolling the power of body positivity is admirable, and something many brands have achieved well — but only when it is done with grace and adroitness. The sketches campaign was clever and insightful, but the bottle shapes idea lacked poetry.

Educating your audience is a great way to engage customers — it’s what turns a business into a brand, and addressing current social causes is a valid means of achieving this. But if it’s not done right, it will devalue your brand and detract from your campaign as a result.


Where would a list of woke marketing gone wrong be without a mention of Pepsi? In 2017, the soft drinks giant partnered with influencer Kendall Jenner for its latest promo campaign. The ad follows Jenner as she leaves a photoshoot to join a street protest, during which she hands a can of Pepsi to a policeman. The crowd cheers wildly, and the message is clear: Pepsi solves everything?

Pepsi’s ad was condemned by many and defended by few, and the brand issued a statement, saying: “this is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey.” The statement did little to quell critics, who derided it as activism-by-numbers. Rather than delivering a coherent message, it simply capitalised on protest culture for its own purposes.

How to get it right.

As with so many examples on this list, Pepsi dropped the ball by failing to appreciate the nuance of activism. Whitewashing all protests into one reduces social causes, and shows a lack of effort on a brand’s part. Simply paying lip service to a general cause is not enough — you have to engage with it on a meaningful level.

Woke marketing is achievable — but tread carefully. Engage with your chosen cause on a deeper level, embrace nuance, and spend time creating a clever campaign that provokes the imagination rather than indignation. Otherwise, you might end up on the next list of woke marketing examples gone wrong…

Patrick Foster is a writer and e-commerce expert from Ecommerce Tips.


plain background.jpg

Marketing Island is an award-winning online marketing magazine set to inspire those in the digital industry.