Jon GingerichJon Gingerich

Two years ago, I wrote an editorial on this site about a phenomenon I referred to as “performative wokeness,” or when brands resort to the grifty act of empty sloganeering or reflexively declare their progressive bona fides in an opportunistic bid to gain market share.

That’s still happening—arguably, now more than ever. But in response, the pendulum has swung the other way. Celebrities, brands and media personalities are now cashing in on the public backlash to wokeness, catering to some consumers’ frustrations at what they perceive to be a political climate where brands are effectively shoving diversity, tolerance and inclusion down our collective throats. Enter the pernicious, equally performative “anti-woke” brand, which has become the single most significant development this year in our ongoing culture wars.

Brands, now effectively rendered a cudgel for our political interests, have ideologically committed Americans waging a bizarre proxy war with some predictably silly—and sometimes dangerous—results. Either way, I’m assuming this latest development has given more than a few boardrooms pause on whether to dip their toes into the political arena going forward.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's July '23 Travel & Tourism PR Magazine
(view PDF version)

Consider these recent offerings from the anti-woke economy.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has built an entire political platform on being anti-woke. His nonstop spat with Disney, which started last year after Disney publicly criticized the Republican presidential candidate’s Parental Rights in Education legislation (aka the “Don’t Say Gay” bill), which bars educators from discussing sexual identity in classrooms, resulted in the Governor retaliating by dismantling Disney’s ability to self-govern its Orlando amusement parks, a move so stupid that even Donald Trump called it “an unnecessary political stunt.” Disney, in turn, sued DeSantis and scrapped a $17 billion expansion plan in the Sunshine State. DeSantis’ war on woke might’ve won him a few early plaudits, but Mickey Mouse is a more beloved brand any day, and worse, the entire ordeal has made the Florida Governor look like a one-trick pony. DeSantis is now trailing Trump in the polls by double digits, with many polls now showing Trump carrying twice the support.

In what has undoubtedly been one of the biggest branding disasters in recent years, Bud Light found itself in a reputational crisis in April after it sent transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney a set of beer cans to celebrate her gender transition. When Mulvaney promoted Budweiser’s flagship low-calorie beverage in an Instagram video, that partnership proved to be the branding equivalent of an atomic bomb, with conservatives nationwide ditching their favorite beer of choice. Musician Kid Rock—who’s currently capitalizing on the anti-woke wave with an entire summer concert series called the “No Snowflakes Tour”—filmed himself shooting a case of Bud Light with a semiautomatic rifle. Tracking figures from Nielsen IQ now estimate that Bud Light’s sales volume is down 30 percent from the same time last year. In response, the beer maker has rolled out an aggressively populist new ad campaign titled “That’s Who We Are,” which features a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of Anheuser-Busch employees, in a bid to change the conversation, win back customers and halt its cratering sales. The company is also kicking off a desperate promotion over the Fourth of July holiday, where it plans to give away free beer.

Even Chick-fil-A is apparently too woke now for some right-wing groups. The fast-food chain, which is famously closed on Sundays and has long championed conservative values—its chairman has repeatedly stated he only supports the “traditional” definition of marriage—found itself in the crosshairs recently after news broke across social media circles that it had hired a vice president of DEI. That boycott proved to be a bust, presumably because a fast-food favorite is a bridge too far for fair-weather ideologues.

The list goes on and on. Former Fox personality Eric Bolling even hosts an entire series on Newsmax now called “Go Woke, Go Broke,” dedicated to the public backlash brands—like retailer Target—subject themselves to when they attempt to be conscientious or take a public stand on social issues.

To be sure, there’s definitely a market for these “anti-woke” crusaders, much as there is for brands that broadcast their commitment to social-justice efforts. I can’t possibly predict what the next phase in our culture wars will look like, but I’m not convinced that the world we’re currently working to create—where corporations set the yardstick for what’s morally acceptable behavior—is a world that anyone on either ideological side actually wants. Given the backlash some of these aforementioned brands have faced in recent months—there seems to be a new victim every week—it straddles the obvious to state that brands need to tread carefully these days. I’m guessing that many brands might begin second-guessing their commitment to ideology-driven marketing in the future. Some might ditch the practice altogether. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.