Brands must adapt to ‘serious threat’ of being called out by ‘woke’ generation, says new study led by Portsmouth university lecturer

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A STUDY led by a Portsmouth university lecturer has found that consumer activism against ‘dangerous’ portrayals of women and other demographic groups poses a ‘growing and serious threat’ to brands.

New research says that 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.

The study, published in Psychology & Marketing and led by Karen Middleton, senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Portsmouth, examined the social media backlash against a KFC television advertisement showing boys ogling a woman’s breasts.

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Some consumers called it sexist and damaging, while others defended it as ‘just a bit of fun’.

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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portraying a woman in a sexist way, but the same social activism could and often is rallied when advertisements use outdated tropes which are damaging to any vulnerable group, not just women.”

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The lecturer also 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.

She 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.

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‘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.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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