Is it us, or has virtue signaling become the new PR backbone of most major corporations and companies?
If you’re not familiar, the definition of virtue signaling is the sharing of your point of view on a social or political issue, often on social media, in order to garner praise and acknowledgment of your righteousness from others who share that point of view, or to passively rebuke those who do not. Basically, it’s a facade of moral and social superiority.
Appeasing the Masses
There’s no doubt that social media has become like the cool kids at the party peer pressuring everyone to “just take a sip.” You watch as polarizing extremists harass companies and celebrities until they conform to their point of view or cancel them if they don’t (under the guise of “inclusion” of course!). Not creating a post, like with the black square for BLM and the rainbow logo for Pride Month, often will put you under the lens of scrutiny and deafening assumptions that you’re either a racist, a bigot, a homophobe…the list goes on.
Due to these loud pressuring tactics, businesses fear that they’ll lose customers as a result. This leads to posting and promoting viewpoints just to appease the masses without any true belief or action to back it. Ironically, this ends up deterring even more customers (and employees) as a result.
In fact, according to the Pull Agency, as many as 68% of consumers reported they feel uncomfortable about “green-washing” and “woke-washing,” where brands fake their sustainability credentials or their interest in social issues. They said they see these brands as inauthentic. And 14% said they “deliberately avoid the brands they see behaving this way.”
68% of consumers reported they feel uncomfortable about “green-washing” and “woke-washing.”
It even creates division within the companies that are voicing their stance of support. For instance, back in the summer of 2020 when the race riots were breaking out across the country, Adidas was one of the many major corporations putting out messages of support for the movement. What they believed would make them favorable to the masses just fueled internal rage as employees spoke out about the lack of diversity within the organization itself. Eventually, Adidas renewed its statement with concrete promises to address internal inequalities and invest in black communities.
“People are really fed up with this level of virtue signaling that we’re seeing in corporate America right now. Your CEO can put out a beautifully written statement on why black lives matter, but if the organization isn’t actually backing that up with the way that it behaves on a daily basis, then it’s kind of bullsh*t,” stated a strategist at a boutique employee-communications agency.
Perhaps it has even become a bit of a double-edged sword that has created a more prominent pressure for companies than what meets the eye. While there should certainly be equal opportunity within the workforce, it seems that the pendulum has swung to only caring about qualities of physical appearance to put up a front of diversity rather than the qualities on a resume that make each candidate the most suitable for their position. Apparently the diversity of thought has yet to hit the mainstream wave!
Companies Need To Walk the Walk
In an article for the Washington Examiner by Brad Polumbo, a gay man, he calls out many corporate giants for their wavering position on gay pride. The opening paragraph reads: “Every June, Americans are treated to a never-ending onslaught of rainbow-themed promotions and focus-grouped statements from corporate giants in honor of Pride Month. In some sense, this annual trend is a sign of the tremendous progress we’ve made in this country toward the acceptance of gay people. But corporate America’s rainbow virtue-signaling also rubs many people the wrong way, even gay people like myself, because it’s so transparently empty and hypocritical.”
He goes on to call out the hypocrisy where it seems companies are tokenizing Pride Month for status rather than supporting it fully world-wide. One such example he draws attention to is ExxonMobil, where they boasted a rainbow-themed banner on their U.S. Twitter account yet not on their account for India, where homosexuality remains highly stigmatized.
Same for LinkedIn, which went all-in with a Pride Month message on its U.S. Twitter account, but interestingly, has no Pride Month posts on its India account so far this year. Starbucks lauds Pride Month on its U.S. Twitter account — and it even has Pride-themed cups — but doesn’t mention it on its UAE profile, Brunei profile, or India profile. It seems these corporations are only posting about social causes in locations where it's convenient for them.
Starbucks lauds Pride Month on its U.S. Twitter account but doesn’t mention it on its UAE or India profile.
Virtue signaling isn’t just about social and political issues either, it can pop up regarding any movement, even those like self-love and mental health. Such an establishment is seen in California at Café Gratitude, a raw-food restaurant frequented by celebrities. Each menu item is framed as an affirmation that is declared by the customer as they order and then mirrored back by the server when being presented. Examples include “I am enchanting,” “I am exquisite,” “I am awesome”...and the menu goes on. A company rooted in acceptance, love, and choice also proclaims “we are not just in the restaurant business, we are in the business of developing people.”
However, some customers feel that virtue signaling companies like Café Gratitude tend to leave them with a bad taste in their mouth, not only from the food, but from the rude waitstaff and pretentious attitude of those who participate in the charade. One reviewer even wrote of Café Gratitude, "I have no idea why people love this place so much, the food just terrible. and if that is not enough it is incredibly pretentious. all the menu names are are aphorisms "I am wonderful" and "I am powerful" if that does not make you sick the tasteless food will. I would sooner eat dirt that ever go here again...my skin crawls at the mere mention of this place." Another reviewer wrote, "Grateful is not the word I would use to describe our server... A couple of my friends had never been to a vegan restaurant, so a server with patience would've been helpful. If you tell someone, "You're a grown ass woman. You can make a decision." You're not only rude, insulting but completely out of line... Vegans pick a place that would be "grateful" to serve you. It's not here."
As you can see, corporations are playing their part in leveraging off the backs of their consumers without any real evidence to support it and many are getting fed up. Most of these companies don’t genuinely make strong efforts of activism until roaring waves of emotion ripple through society. Then it becomes “trendy” as opposed to truthful, and opens the door to a good marketing opportunity that will draw in attention and drum up business but not actually support those who are marginalized, or add any real value to their customers' lives.
Ideally as a business you want to be marketable to all people, backgrounds, and beliefs. At the end of the day, your goal is to make a sale. However, being aggressive in your political and social opinions will only resonate with a small population who agree with your messaging, if that. Ironically, it's the same ones who advocate for inclusivity that are also the most exclusive and intolerant to anyone who veers from their way of thinking. For most, this is a turnoff contributing to more division and noise.
Ultimately, actions speak louder than words. Consumers are on to virtue signaling just to “fit in” without any real substance, causing even those who resonate with the messaging to be dissatisfied with the lack of authentic action. Essentially, it becomes a lose-lose situation. Operating intentionally and with integrity will always go further than rash actions to reign superior on the fleeting moral waves constructed by society.
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