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How Progressive Brand Decisions Can Fuel Online Controversy


Today’s modern brands strive to be inclusive to all the different types of consumers who make up our society. Over the past few years we’ve seen the efforts play out in a variety of ways. Models of different sizes in fashion ads. Brands taking a stand on a political issue. Advertising that tells more inclusive stories, questioning gender stereotypes, pushing forward progressive narratives, and casting diverse actors with different backgrounds, sexual orientations, and beliefs.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that these progressive and inclusive brand narratives are a good thing. As with many progressive movements that have happened in our collective history, there’s a backlash afoot. With social media, it’s easy to amplify dissent, mobilize users to propagate it, and provide an opportunity for disinformation to thrive.

The New Knowledge narrative integrity solution detected a large scale campaign that targets progressive brands and their inclusion efforts on an ongoing basis: #GetWokeGoBroke. The meaning behind the words is the phrase “get woke”, which is to be aware of oppression and injustice in society. The “go broke” serves as the goal of the campaign, to have a negative financial impact on the brands that “get woke”.

The general storyline goes like this: any time a brand takes a progressive and/or inclusive action, online agents mobilize to spread content that defames the brand. Here are a few examples of how brand actions have been targeted by the #GetWokeGoBroke campaign:

PBS Children’s TV Show “Arthur” Depicts Gay Marriage

Even though the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage in 2015, PBS children’s TV show “Arthur” received backlash from of a recent episode of the show where two male characters were married.

The creator of the show, Marc Brown, made the decision to incorporate gay marriage into the premier episode of season 22. Mr. Ratburn, a teacher on the show, is revealed as gay, and marries a male aardvark named Patrick.

In addition to an outpouring of public support, the show was also lambasted on social media channels through the #GetWokeGoBroke hashtag and by conservative pundits like Sebastian Gorka. The conservative group One Million Moms even went so far as to collect signatures on a petition to “voice your disapproval of the network’s attempt to normalize same-sex marriage.”

Ultimately the episode was pulled from Alabama Public Television, which broadcasted a re-run instead.

Chips Ahoy! Features Drag Queen in Mother’s Day Social Media Campaign

In an attempt to include all types of maternal relationships in their marketing, Chips Ahoy! created a short video on Twitter featuring Vanessa Vanjie, star of the RuPaul’s Drag Race TV show. The accompanying tweet read: “#HappyMothersDay to your moms, your drag moms and everyone who celebrates you being YOU.”

Again, on the heels of a great deal of positive outpouring was the swift negative response trending on the #GetWokeGoBroke hashtag. Starting with Federalist contributor David Reaboi:

And popping up all over Twitter with the hashtag #GetWokeGoBroke:

As the conversation picked up, Lifesite News accused Chips Ahoy! of mocking users who expressed concern over the campaign. Myriad outlets including The Daily Dot,,and have all voiced their outrage over the Chips Ahoy!’s usage of a drag queen in their marketing.

Gillette Launches Advertising Campaign Inspired by #MeToo

Likely the most visible of progressive brand actions was Gillette’s recent television ad launched just prior to the Super Bowl. The two-minute long ad acknowledges historical masculinity and the toxicity associated with it, encouraging men to be better and do the right thing – while showing examples of men doing their part to combat harassment and bullying.

The ad ends with the statement “”It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more, that we can get closer to our best,” tying into the iconic brand statement, “Gillette: The Best a Man Can Get.”

However massive the positive response from #MeToo proponents, negative feedback was pervasive as well, with online agents reacting to the campaign by trashing their Gillette products and calling for a boycott.

Contrary to the efforts of online users, the ad isn’t impacting Gillette’s sales negatively. And Gillette must realize they are onto something with all this media exposure. Even though the dust hasn’t settled on the initial campaign, Gillette has released a new advertisement for Father’s Day that showcases a transgender son experiencing his first shave with the guidance of his father.

The same type of backlash began ensuing again on #GetWokeGoBroke:

For Brands, Being Inclusive and Progressive Means Readying for the Onslaught.

All the negative attention to these progressive brand actions may make marketers cringe when proposing inclusive ideas of their own. But consider this: the backlash in the majority of cases does NOT always have the intended effect.

Though there’s been a lot of talk (and a petition circulating) around PBS’s show “Arthur”, there are no programming changes reported to-date. PBS hasn’t reported any loss of sponsorships, which did happen back in 2005 when the network made the decision to drop an episode that featured several lesbian mothers.

Nabisco, the owner of Chips Ahoy!, and Procter & Gamble, the maker of Gillette, haven’t reported any drop in sales since both their progressive campaigns launched. And the addition of another progressive ad by Gillette would indicate that the negative exposure is not necessarily a bad thing.

Make no mistake: brands must ready themselves to manage and respond to the unintended consequences of progressive, inclusive advertising. The key is being aware of the different ways backlash takes shape. Brands must closely monitor these online conversations to watch for coordination campaigns, disinformation, and other inauthentic content and tactics that could manipulate their brand message.

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