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Believe in Something

Corporate wokeness is now big business

Consider the very last scene of Mad Men, and that scheming smile that slowly stretches across the otherwise inscrutable face of adman extraordinaire Don Draper as, trying hard to fit into a sect of yoga-performing hippies, he closes his eyes and mutters a sonorous “Om.” We are made to believe that perhaps this is the transcendent moment that enables him to dream up the now-famous 1971 “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” jingle and the accompanying visuals of a multinational, multiethnic, and harmonious crowd of people atop a hill. Did Draper smile because he had found enlightenment? Or was he feeling inwardly beatific because he had, yet again, found a way to dupe people into believing that a commercial product held meaning beyond the slight buzz provided by a combination of sugar and carbonated water?

Capital has always projected itself as being on our side, as caring about the world. Even if we swallowed the message and the jingles, the great enabling fiction came wrapped in commercials for consumer products—providing some sense that there was a nod-and-a-wink hidden in these signature cultural transactions. But Don Draper’s vague appeal to seventies political consciousness was a far cry from our present age of woke-minded ad messaging, in which commercials have begun to sound like nonprofit fundraising pitches. Consider, for instance, those Dove advertisements that promised to let plus-size women believe they were beautiful—and publicly paraded them in their bras and panties in a commercial for cellulite-reducing cream. Or the Heineken “Worlds Apart” ad that showed people of disparate backgrounds and races coming together (eventually) over the beer. Or—to bring things back to the strategic positioning of carbonated sugar water as a proto-revolutionary product—the (thankfully short-lived) Kendall Jenner Pepsi spot that portrayed the soda as the means to bring Occupy-style protesters back into a grateful posture of consumer-abundance connoisseurship. Part of the outraged reception to that ad had to do with its tone-deaf iconography; Jenner’s soda-shilling star turn mimicked the justifiably famous image of Ieshia Evans taking an actual stand against Baton Rouge police during a protest of a racist police shooting.

These commercials are easy to see through and pick apart—Dove and Heineken were roundly criticized, and Heineken came in for a brutal round of online parody. And Jenner’s Pepsi spot was yanked shortly after its release, destined for a spot in future marketing curricula seeking to instruct aspiring ad copywriters in mistakes never to be repeated again.

If It Ain’t Woke, Don’t Fix It

But in recent months, and since the election of Donald Trump, corporate wokeness has seen a resurgence and a sharpening, greatly enabled by a widespread division between Trump supporters—construed as uniformly white and suburban or rural—and those who oppose him, typically depicted as more urban and socially liberal. Trump’s very existence now brings such divisions into sharp relief, and where corporations might once have hesitated to do little more than show crowds of people crooning about love, peace, and harmony, they are now ready to stake their claims on messaging that goes far beyond feel-good product-based communalism and into something that resembles an overt political stance.

In sharp contrast to the failure of the Jenner Pepsi ad, Nike’s ad featuring Colin Kaepernick and its famous tagline, “Just Do It,” has been part of an enormously successful campaign.

Woke campaigns aren’t focused on repairing structural inequities, but on amassing profit for corporate players who continue to do harm.

In 2016, Kaepernick, then the San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback, began kneeling during the national anthem before games, to protest racism and police brutality in the wake of numerous high- profile police shootings of unarmed black men. His actions generated anger among some fans and the NFL’s top brass; he eventually failed to attract any teams as suitors when he became a free agent, despite a solid performance record including a trip to the Super Bowl. (Kaepernick is now suing the NFL for allegedly allowing team owners to collude in his non-employment, and the anthem protests he sparked have been roundly demonized by Trump.) In 2018, Nike—which has partnered with the NFL since 2012—unveiled a massive advertising campaign featuring Kaepernick front and center. The ads read “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” accompanied by the shoe-maker’s signature, “Just Do It.”

On its face, this campaign seemed like a huge gamble on Nike’s part—and it further looked to be a gamble that paid off when share prices soared. But, as a searching New York Times investigative report makes clear, the corporation in fact went through a series of behind-the-scenes discussions and even considered dropping Kaepernick altogether, nervous—terrified, more likely—that it would face mass boycotts from consumers. When it became clear that the NFL supporters—largely white, male, and older—were outnumbered by the corporation’s brand loyalists—more diverse and younger—Nike went ahead and now even claims that it inaugurated the campaign because it believes that Kaepernick “is one of the most inspirational athletes of his generation.”

Advertisements for Themselves

Putting aside the so-what arguments we could make about all this—why should anyone be surprised that a corporation made an advertising decision based on sales figures?—we still should consider that the Kaepernick campaign marks a significant shift in corporate messaging. Just as the Jenner-Pepsi debacle is a cautionary tale about rudderless and cynical exploitation of social justice campaigns for commercial purposes, Nike’s success in the Kaepernick case may prove to be the model for corporations to hit the marketing sweet spot by taking a political position. If so, it may well betoken (emphasis here on the token) a whole new mode of quasi-politicized corporate discourse, in which major advertisers are no longer simply making advertisements: they are attempting to actually remake themselves as agents of change in the world. In striking concert with such nimbly woke-ish messaging stratagems in the marketing sphere, corporations and entities like Teen Vogue are now remaking themselves as arbiters of wokeness—which is to say their causes are not just championing some vague ideas about making the world better, they are also coming down unambiguously on specific sides of issues. All of this is proving a success, at least for now: Teen Vogue has discontinued its print edition, but its online version continues to generate enormous web traffic. Corporate wokeness is now big business, quite literally.

There are, of course, things that become occluded in this process, not the least of which is that corporations, by their very nature, exist and survive and thrive on the rank exploitation of millions, even as others seem to be uplifted. Nike was once the most visible target of the anti-capitalist, anti-corporation movement because of its horrendous labor practices. As recently as last summer, the company faced a class-action lawsuit from four executives in its Oregon headquarters alleging gender discrimination. But keeping the spotlight focused on what seems to be a very public demonstration of support for a controversial athlete of color will likely keep it successful until 2020, or beyond if Trump is re-elected. Other companies are following suit: after Trump’s drastic reduction of federal funding and maintenance for two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the popular outdoor-clothing brand Patagonia lodged a stark protest. A page appeared on the Patagonia website that was nothing but a black screen with white lettering that read, “Your President Stole Your Land.” Users could then click through to explanatory text calling Trump’s move outright “illegal.” During the administration’s brutal introduction of family-separation measures for immigrants at the southern U.S. border, the tech industry—not exactly the best advocate for sound labor practices, especially when it comes to outsourced workers in other countries—jumped into the game. Elon Musk of Tesla and Timothy D. Cook of Apple both tweeted their support for families separated by immigration authorities. Forgotten until the next moment of outrage is that Apple workers in China stand for ten straight hours a day making iPhone casings without protective gear, or that overworked Tesla workers suffer a disproportionate number of injuries on the job.

The Starbucks Cannot Hold

Advertising, unlike nature, does not abhor a vacuum. These cynical messaging flourishes are taking hold amid a pronounced lurch toward depoliticized rhetoric and self-referenced and performative excesses in the original home of woke discourse, on the American left. The chronic state of social amnesia that permits the great American marketing public to forget just what the woke apostles of digital-age capitalism stand for during the balance of the workweek couldn’t exist in the face of concerted left opposition. As recently as 1999, after all, the outbreak of anti-globalization protests at that year’s WTO gathering in Seattle seemed to presage the rise of an activist left that had no patience for the anodyne neoliberal nostrums of free trade and enlightened multicultural management. The vandalism of a Starbucks—which, prior to Amazon’s monolithic ascent, had symbolized Seattle’s own entry into the sacred precincts of the global capitalist vanguard—stood in most media reports on the protests as a terrifying synecdoche for the world leftists wanted, i.e., a rubble-strewn retail moonscape without decent coffee!

No longer. Whatever robustly anticapitalist sentiment propelled the vandals of Seattle forward has long since dulled and been largely subsumed into a culture of wokeness defined by digital spasms of social media hyper-awareness. Thanks to the cultural left’s abdication of sustained engagement with political economy, the saturation of wokeness has moved implacably rightward from the commercialized cultural center.

The Right Revolution, Televised

Tucker Carlson’s recently viral Fox News monologue generated shock and awe even among left-leaning folk. In a nearly twenty- minute rant, the conservative host began by addressing Mitt Romney’s criticism of Trump and then charged that the GOP’s 2012 presidential standard bearer had not gone far enough. What followed was a critique of the “mercenaries” running the country and crushing working-class life outcomes that—in certain long, decontextualized snatches—could well have passed for a Bernie Sanders-style castigation of the depredations of global capitalism. As is typical for Carlson, his speech was filled with an anxiety about the state of the American family and American men, with the usual sexist and paranoid saws—that the downturn in manufacturing (apparently women just aren’t part of that workforce) and other male-dominated industries has left men unable to remain the family breadwinners; that women make more money and therefore don’t have to marry or have children. And horror of horrors, all this brings about a “drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow—more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.”

Corporations have been reworked as beneficent oligarchs who can decide the quality of our lives, and whose primary responsibility to us is simply that they echo the right views.

While his social analysis is conservative standard-issue, it’s Carlson’s take on economics that left many reeling: “We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.” And what seemed like a stinging indictment of the elites: “In 2010, for example, Mitt Romney made about $22 million dollars in investment income. He paid an effective federal tax rate of 14 percent. For normal upper-middle-class wage earners, the federal tax rate is nearly 40 percent. No wonder Romney supports the status quo. But for everyone else, it’s infuriating.”

We could, as some have, point to Carlson’s hypocrisy as someone who is in fact well and truly entrenched in the upper class. But as is usually the case in the social-media sport of hypocrisy spotting, the target emerged largely unscathed. Carlson, after all, freely acknowledges having been born into the elite (a private boarding school, followed by college at Trinity, all under the care of a wealthy family) and indeed claims that his privileged socioeconomic background is a strength: in a 2017 GQ profile, he said, “I’ve lived in that world my entire life, so I know how those people feel.”

We might also remember that Trump got elected not in spite of his wealth and apparent distance from the millions suffering economic disempowerment but precisely because of it. In Illinois, voters traded a millionaire Republican Governor, Bruce Rauner, for a billionaire Democrat, J.B. Pritzker, scion of one of the wealthiest families in the world. All of which is to say: even if we don’t think that corporations are people, we have to acknowledge that, as far as the American public is concerned, people whose wealth rivals that of corporations are not considered in any way possibly out of touch: their wealth is far more widely seen as a unique advantage. And this makes Carlson’s apparent class-conscious version of right-wing populism look, to even some on the broad spectrum of the left, like a good thing. Read one way, Carlson embodies a willingness on the part of the right to look compassionately at the ills facing the massive numbers of poor and disenfranchised. But that reading comes at the cost of ignoring not only his problems with women but his relentless attack on immigrants, a theme he, like Trump, takes up constantly.

Crits vs. Hypocrites

But focusing on matters like Carlson’s hypocrisy or, as some have done, whether or not he is right about, say, the scale and nature of the nation’s drug addiction problem (another pet moral-panic theme on his show and in the monologue), or what we really ought to do about marriage and gender, occludes the bigger picture here. Setting aside Carlson’s many demonstrable flaws as a person and a media brand, a conservative pundit’s class-inflected critique of GOP governance actually represents the wages of wokeness once it’s been divorced from any cohesive politics. So any majoritarian-minded left movement must heed the specific ways in which Carlson’s words resonate with a right that is both emboldened by Trump and beginning to assume a post-Trump identity.

Woke left critiques can, at times, point out structural and historical inequalities, but too often they ignore the lived reality of vast swaths of people who don’t live in, say, New York or Chicago. We might broadly critique patriarchal ideas about marriage and women, sure, or the xenophobia and racism generated by anti-immigrant rhetoric, but we forget, in the space of an ad, that the anxieties around marriage and immiration are both structural and social—with consequences both global and local.

In the ad campaigns of corporations like Nike and Apple, the brands’ wokeness purports to function as a mode of resistance. Of course, many on the left can see that for the cynical move it is. We’re expected to ignore the fact that all of this is actually proving to be enormously successful for the corporations. Woke campaigns aren’t focused on repairing structural inequities, but on amassing profit for corporate players who continue to do harm. For but one deeply revealing example, look at what the tech industry has done to San Francisco over the past two decades, via massive gentrification campaigns and anti-poor initiatives that include removing services for the homeless in an effort to stamp them out of the city. In lieu of combating the underlying efforts to engineer inequality as a permanent condition of public life, wokeness overwhelmingly dotes on matters of image, as with the face of Kaepernick and the public projection of compassion toward faceless immigrants. While poor people continue to be ground down, this left obsession with the trappings of wokeness leaves a vacant discursive space that Carlson’s faux concern for the everyman can invade, with its attendant xenophobia and overt deference to billionaires (by supporting the idea that capitalism itself is fine, we just need to be nicer under it).

Woke, Flat and Busted

What if we devised better ways of critiquing and dismantling capitalism that were not so dependent on wokeness and its accompanying set of emotional appeals to public sympathy embedded in pseudo-structural critiques? Anti-capitalism has long been the left’s great calling card, but in recent years the edge of that tradition of critique has been unequivocally dulled by a turn to resolve behavioral issues rather than structural ones. At the height of the gay marriage movement, for example, the gay community regularly called for the removal of CEOs who might slip and show their opposition to gay marriage—and, finally, got corporations like Target to (wearily, we imagine) sign an amicus brief in favor of the issue, in the face of threats of boycotts by a gay community that had proven its economic muscle by then. In the intervening years, places like Target and Walmart have become the only recourse for jobs and for goods in areas like the south side of Chicago where I live; when they leave, entire neighborhoods are left scrambling—and all too often, without any sort of safety net beneath them. That kind of economic power has come on the tails of a reworking of the very idea of corporations as beneficent oligarchs who can decide the quality of our lives, and whose primary responsibility to us is simply that they echo the right notes to show us that they are, like good liberals, of sound views.

In a Trumpian world, we are tempted, mightily, to only think of the crisis of the now. Hence today’s left is rhetorically grouped together against Trump in a loosely configured mode of “resistance.” But in the meantime, the wokeness in which we took pride has been quietly appropriated to other ends. At some point, the reign of Trump will be over and we will, as the famous bit of graffiti puts it, find ourselves waking up on the wrong side of capitalism.