Issue 02 of our print magazine is available to buy now

Issue 02 is available now

“Labels are for bottles”: can brand advertising have a positive social impact?

“Labels are for bottles”: can brand advertising have a positive social impact?

How can we distinguish ‘woke-washing’ from authentic brand activism?
By Arielle Domb
24th Jun 2020


Last year, Listerine launched a special mouthwash for Pride. The original ‘Cool Mint’ bottle was revamped with rainbow stripes, bejeweled with six fantastically hollow words: “life”, “healing,”, “nature”, “peace”, “harmony”, “spirit”. 

It is no surprise that Listerine’s “gay mouthwash” did not go down well among the LGBT community. The marketing misfire sparked an abundance of satirical posts on Twitter: “at least I can wash my gay hair and rinse my gay mouth while truly feeling seen”, one user tweeted; “are they donating to an LGBTQ+ cause or…”, another skeptically expressed. 

Listerine’s LGBT mouthwash was among a number of brands accused of ‘woke-washing’ last year. As was the case with Marks and Spencer’s “colourful” LGBT sandwich (conflating the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans community with a lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato sandwich), companies were criticised for trivialising the movement, exploiting issues of social justice for commercial gain.

Society and beliefs 

Advertising geared towards lesbian and gay consumers began appearing in the 70s, following the identity-defining moment of the Stonewall riots. Yet by the 80s, this had almost entirely halted.

When NBC Nightly News first reported on AIDS in June 1982, it was described as “a rare form of cancer” – the “lifestyle of some male homosexuals” to blame. AIDS was being propogated through the media as a “gay plague”; a moral disease, selfishly spread from man to man – like a “mosquito”, as Professor Opendra Narayan from the Johns Hopkins Medical School called it. 

In December 1985, the popular science magazine Discover, used medical illustrations of the human anatomy to demonstrate “the fatal price one can pay for anal intercourse.” 

Despite the staggering death toll, the government kept quiet. As the infection spread, so did homophobic beliefs, causing brands to disband their ties with the LGBT community. 

David Kirby

Some companies, however, maintained their support. In 1992, the year AIDS had become the number one cause of death for US men ages 25 to 44, the United Colours of Benetton released one of the most controversial images in advertising history. Stamped with a Benetton logo, was the photo of a dying man: gay activist and AIDS victim, David Kirby, lying open-mouthed, swadled in his fathers’ arms as his mother and sister sat by his side, impotent. The photograph was taken by journalism student, Therese Frare, in Kirby’s final moments, recoloured by Benetton two years later. Frare’s intimate portrait of the way AIDS affects families was a radical break from the way the disease was largely portrayed in the media. 

“We can’t be like ostriches who put their heads in the sand” Benetton creative director, Oliviero Toscani stated. “Communication is the responsibility of a company as much as it is, say, the responsibility of the media”. 

Despite Benetton’s claim that they were using the image to raise awareness of AIDS victims, many believed that they were exploiting a man’s suffering for commercial gain, without any clear message about AIDS.

We find it hard to trust social activism led by brands. In their book, Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times, Roopali Mukherjee and Sarah Banet-Weiser explain that contradictions arise between philanthropy and corporate profit. We are skeptical of being sold a social vision at the same time as being sold a product. 

It is crucial, however, that we remember that all brands have impact. The assumption that brands can exist without being socially impactive rests on a false dichotomy between the worlds of commerce and social value. As Katherine Sender emphasises in Business, Not Politics: The Making of the Gay Market, it “disavows the extent to which all marketing has political effects” from “the circulation of an ethos of consumption [to] the affirmation of ideologies about gender, class, race, and other identities.”

“Seeing it all as contradiction does not help us anymore,” Mukherjee and Banet-Weiser write. “We cannot dismiss these modes as simply hypocrisy, incorporation, or corporate appropriation. They demand a more complex, less cynical, less dismissive approach.”

Whilst gay activists called for a boycot of the brand, David Kirby’s father mantained his support for Benetton’s use of the image. “Benetton is not using us, we’re using Benetton,” he stated. “If that photograph helps someone…then it’s worth whatever pressure we have to go through.”  

Walking the talk

The ambivalent response to Benettton’s use of the David Kirby image illuminates the complexity of social impact marketing and the importance of not taking a blanket approach. Advertising campaigns will not be effective without genuine commitment to the cause, whilst at the same time, genuine care is redundant without effective communication. 

In order for a company to have a positive social impact, everyone in the company must be aligned with their purpose. As one user wrote on twitter, “I see NatWest also has a nice rainbow despite their employee refusing to change my title and telling me I didn’t ‘look like a man’ so it would appear fraudulent. Also getting misgendered every time I phone because you can’t include trans people in your basic call centre training.”

If companies do not reflect on how their organisations are run, their rhetoric feels embarrassingly out of sync with what they actually stand for. As well as educating staff about LGBT issues, this means involving LGBT people in their campaigns. 

“If we don’t have diverse people in decision making roles, how are we going to change perceptions in front of the camera?” asks trans activist and Orange is the New Black star, Laverne Cox, in an interview with A-List. 

Last year, Cox starred in several advertisements for the vodka brand, Smirnoff. In the most recent festive advert, ‘A Not-So-Silent Night’, Cox slips from a suit into a sparkling red dress, taking centre stage of a lavish, Gatsby-esque party. 

Smirnoff have introduced other initiatives to make long-lasting change, including LGBTQ training for barstaff and nightlife safety programme ‘Village Angels’, enlisting a team of trained volunteers committed to make nightlife a safer space, particularly for the LGBTQ+ community, who are likely to have experienced abuse. Smirnoff also teamed up with Lad Bible to create a series of featuring social initiatives  and experiments, aimed to shatter stereotypes about LGBTQ people. 

“Smirnoff knows who they’re getting,” Cox tells A-List. “I get to show up as me, and I don’t have to check my behavior because I’m representing this brand.” 

These campaigns aren’t perfect. Critics could easily comment on the prevalence of alcoholism in LGBT communities or LAD Bible’s eyebrow raising roots (attach link). But they nonetheless show brands recognising the complexity of systemic issues and the need of a carefully thought out response. Altering ingrained beliefs takes time. Rainbow colours are not enough. 

How can your brand have a positive social impact?

  • As well as looking outwards to the structures in which they exist, a brand cannot become a genuine agent of positive social action without looking inwards. 
  • Genuine reflection on every level of operation – from investigating the ethics of their buyers, to providing adequate training for each employee working for the company. 
  • Involving LGBT people in decision making
  • Genuine action
  • Precise communication