The Trouble With Woke Advertising

Brands are taking a stance, but the crafting of messages must involve people of colour.

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Danai Gurira as Okoye in Black Panther.

It used to be that for corporations there were clear lines in the sand. Play it safe, do not get into politics and serve the bottom line. Thankfully, we live in different times. Companies, particularly consumer-based ones, are starting to take bold stances on social issues. While ultimately this is done to win over a more socially and politically engaged consumer, it’s also a way to let the general public know they’re listening and understand that silence can be seen as acceptance. But as we’ve seen with Pepsi, Nike, Levis and now Reebok, when ad campaigns touch on issues such as racial profiling, women’s empowerment, and gun control, it can expose bigger problems in ways the companies may not have intended.
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This summer, Reebok launched its #BeMoreHuman campaign — videos, billboards and web ads — featuring female celebrities, athletes, leaders and change-makers. It’s a diverse collection of women — singer Ariana Grande, model Gigi Hadid, and actresses Gal Gadot and Danai Gurira — offering up inspirational personal quotes to encourage people to “be the best possible version of themselves physically, mentally, and socially.” Much like the recent Nike ad campaign with Colin Kaepernick, the aim was to allow consumers to wear their values on their literal sleeves. The intent seems like a good one, and I was excited to see Black women included.

For instance, Reese Scott, founder of Women’s World of Boxing, is featured wrapping her hand with boxing tape alongside the words “Make no mistake, we are rewriting history blow by blow.” The message and image align seamlessly. In the #MeToo era, this type of empowerment should be encouraged and celebrated.

But the billboard ad featuring Danai Gurira, who plays fierce warrior Okoye in Black Panther, completely misses the mark. As a Black woman, my immediate reaction to the quote that runs with her image — “We have to make our shoulders strong enough for somebody else to stand on” — was anger and resignation.

The quote itself seems innocuous at first. Reebok, of course, is a sporting apparel company and athleticism is a large part of why these women were selected. But there’s always a historical context to think of. And the ad is an example of how when somebody’s story is reduced to a catch phrase, it can take on another meaning. It definitely changed the meaning for me.

Danai Gurira in Reebok advertisement.

Strong Black Woman — it’s something we as Black women hear often. The problem is, it’s not always used as encouragement or a compliment. It’s used as a means to strip us of our humanity. Whether it was during the slavery era, in which Black women suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their owners or were forced to watch their men be lynched, or the Civil rights era, in which they had to continue to carry many of the same traumas while the men were thrust into the spotlight, or today where a large percentage of families are headed by Black women, we are carrying burdens and shouldering the blame for all the plights in the Black community. Black women have not been allowed to be their whole selves; we can’t express a full range of human emotions — lest we become the “Angry Black Woman.” There’s no opportunity to relish in our strength. We are constantly asked to build up and help others, usually without reciprocation, recognition or even gratitude.
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We saw this earlier this month on live television, as Grand Slam and Olympic gold-medal winner Serena Williams, was accused of cheating at the U.S. Open. With tears of frustration, she demanded an apology. Instead, she was penalized, fined $17,000 and then lambasted by media and across social networks as being a whiny, spoiled baby. She was supposed to just take the accusations and continue to be strong. (The double standard in the tennis world that sees white male tennis players committing worse infractions like swearing and destroying equipment without penalty makes it all the more galling.)

It was expected that she would live up to Michelle Obama’s oft-repeated quote — “When they go low, we go high.” It’s what we encourage of our kids to do when they are being teased. To turn the other cheek, to rise above. And it seems like good advice — except when you are constantly lower on the financial and social charts.

Many women loudly champion closing the wage gap between men and women, but quietly ignore that minority women in this county have even bigger gap to bridge. Black women in Canada earn 19.6 per cent less than their White counterparts. Black Canadians are 2.9 per cent of the population, but represent 18 per cent of the population living in poverty. And 54 per cent of the children taken into care have at least one Black parent despite being just 8.2 per cent of Toronto’s youth population. Imagine having to carry both racism and sexism across various sectors of life — while still having to be strong all the time. It is impossible but something that is consistently asked of us.

Ironically, the full quote from Danai is the following: “We stand on the shoulders of others. Make your shoulders strong enough for others to stand on.”

And she’s right. There is nothing more powerful than when women collectively come together. The things our ancestors had to endure is unthinkable, and what we have to go through pales in comparison. We, all of us, stand on the shoulders of pioneers and glass-ceiling breakers. We can vote, run for office, make scientific discoveries, lead Fortune 500 companies because someone else paved the way.

Had Reebok included the first seven words of Danai’s quote, it would’ve changed the entire framework of what her ads say to the world. We don’t know who was in the room putting this campaign together and ultimately approved its final cuts, but there’s a lesson here as to why having diversity on your team is important. And not just in a token way — but to ensure that context is given, history is considered and that everyone can be heard. Before it goes to print.

Instead, to Black women, it repeats what we’ve been hearing our whole lives: Be strong and carry everything for others. Be more human. As if being human wasn’t already hard enough.

Tanya Hayles is the Chief Creative Officer at Hayles Creative Elements and is the founder of Black Moms Connection, a non-profit providing culturally relevant tools and resources.