Major brands risk losing wealth and power if they rely on old-fashioned ideas in their advertising, thanks to the “woke” generation calling them out, according to new research.
The study, led by Karen Middleton, senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Portsmouth, found that consumer activism against perceived “dangerous” portrayals of women and other demographic groups poses a “growing and serious threat” to brands.
The study, published in Psychology & Marketing, examined the social media backlash against a KFC television advertisement showing boys ogling a woman’s breasts.
Some consumers called it sexist and damaging, while others defended it as “just a bit of fun”.
The researchers said that, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, brands risk losing market share if they brush off “socially aware” objections.
Mrs Middleton said: “Our findings show how necessary it is for brands to consider the wider impact of their advertising.
“They are increasingly up against a force of social activism which relies on well-argued rhetoric to call out anything seen as damaging to another group in society.
“Our study examined people’s reactions to an advertisement by a global brand portraying a woman in a sexist way, but the same social activism could and often is rallied when advertisements use outdated tropes which are damaging to any vulnerable group, not just women.”
She described “woke” as social activism on a grand scale and added that brands have no alternative to taking into consideration the impact of social media responses to advertising campaigns.
Mrs Middleton said: “There hasn’t been a great deal of focus on the power of social activism on advertising, but it appears to be becoming a force to be reckoned with.
“It’s not true that any publicity is good publicity – a complaint against any brand that then goes viral poses a serious risk to that brand’s wealth and power.
“Consumers as activists are no longer a wild card; it’s evident that the so-called woke generation is exercising its power to hold large and previously unassailable brands or organisations to account.
“This is a group of socially active and aware people who are increasingly intolerant of transgressions, particularly in relation to social justice.
“There’s no longer any alternative for brands – if they hope to avoid being called out loudly on social media for contributing to social injustice, they need to consider the overall impact of what they say and do. If they are relying on old-fashioned tropes, it’s now much more likely they’ll be called out.”
She added: “Research has shown sexist content leads to both men and women having a diminished view of women’s competence, morality and humanity.
“The same sexism applies to men in advertising, too, when they are portrayed as, for example, emotionally unintelligent or unable to control their impulses simply because they are male.
“These old-fashioned stereotypes do no-one any favours.”