The revolt against woke capitalism
In 2023, ordinary people gave a two-fingered salute to corporate virtue-signalling.
2023 dealt some stunning blows to woke capitalism and the infuriating tendency of today’s corporations to lecture ordinary people about ‘social justice’, climate change and other pseudo-progressive causes. By far the most stunning blow was the Bud Light boycott.
It all began when Alissa Heinerscheid, Bud Light’s then vice-president of marketing, oversaw the recruitment of TikTok influencer and woman impersonator Dylan Mulvaney as the new face of the low-calorie beer brand. In a social-media clip that rapidly went viral, Mulvaney held up a personalised Bud Light can that was created to celebrate the anniversary of his gender transition.
The backlash from consumers was swift and merciless. In just a fortnight, Bud Light’s year-on-year sales dropped 17 per cent and, within a few months, it was no longer the bestselling beer in the US – a position it had held for 20 years. Despite the departure of Heinerscheid and a new branding initiative, sales continue to fall.
It wasn’t just Bud Light that was stung this year. In 2023, a number of companies found out that ‘go woke, go broke’ is more than a meme. Back in 2021, Victoria’s Secret underwent a major woke rebrand. Its diversity-inspired marketing campaigns started showcasing plus-sized women, women with disabilities, refugee women and, of course, transwomen in its underwear. But this year, with projected losses of almost £1 billion, it was forced to ditch the right-on messaging and vowed to bring ‘sexy’ back to its marketing instead.
Similarly, following a backlash from consumers and investors, consumer-goods conglomerate Unilever has promised to cut back on its own vapid virtue-signalling. Unilever’s new CEO announced in October that the hundreds of brands it owns – from Dove soap to Hellmann’s mayonnaise – will no longer trumpet some phoney social or environmental purpose.
Even Black Lives Matter (BLM) fell from grace among the corporate set in 2023, just a few years after support for it became an article of faith for woke executives. Several BLM chapters in the US expressed support for Hamas following the terror group’s brutal pogrom in Israel, sparking a huge public outcry. Shortly after, Coca-Cola quietly removed all mention of its past donations to BLM from its website.
This year has shown us that corporations will rein in their ostentatious virtue-signalling if furious consumers make their voices heard. This is to be welcomed. But as I argued on spiked earlier this year, woke capitalism has always been more than just a branding exercise. Woke thinking is now thoroughly entrenched not just within big US retailers, but within every part of our economic system.
We see it in the banks, which have tried to deny financial services to ‘problematic’ customers like Nigel Farage. We see it in the state’s key economic agencies, such as the Bank of England and the UK Treasury, which are awash with diversity initiatives. Earlier this month, it emerged that staff at the Treasury had been asked to include an audio recording of their name in their email signatures, presumably just before their preferred pronouns. ‘When names are repeatedly mispronounced it can make people feel unseen’, Treasury economists were told. This message was signed off by someone called Sam, whose own voice clip confirmed that his name rhymes with ‘ham’. When those in charge of the nation’s finances seem more concerned with hurt feelings than economic productivity, we know that woke capitalism remains in the ascendant.
Many executives today seem to care less about creating value for shareholders than they do meeting sustainability targets or climbing up the rankings in Stonewall’s workplace-equality index. Many major corporations are signed up to schemes like ‘B Corp’, which certifies companies as ‘leaders in the global movement for an inclusive, equitable and regenerative economy’. Such schemes have nothing to do with boosting revenue and everything to do with firms preening themselves on the global stage. In the end, all they do is reward businesses who have the time and resources to complete the requisite paperwork.
Workers are increasingly forced to accept woke values, too. Indeed, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are an ideal tool for disciplining workers. DEI officers even get to influence the interior lives of employees through unconscious-bias training and other highly politicised workplace interventions. All too often, woke ideas provide a means for managers to bring workers into line, often with the blessing of trade unions.
But the most important function wokeness fulfils for capitalism is that it provides a sense of moral purpose to businesses and executives. Those who feel queasy about making profit as an end in itself can now think of themselves as crusaders for social justice.
In 2023, it has been great to see companies forced into screeching u-turns. Shoppers are voting with their wallets and cannot be ignored. But woke values have become so fundamental to the workings of capitalism today that consumer boycotts can only scratch the surface. We need radical political change if we really want to bring the woke capitalists to heel.
Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and author of How Woke Won, which you can order here.
Picture by: Instagram.
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