Why are corporations using social-justice-themed messaging? Conservative pundits concoct sinister conspiracy theories, but the real explanation is much simpler: they're going where the money is.

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A terrible plague is ravaging corporate America—and I don’t mean COVID.

It’s worse than that: The woke mind virus has struck, and it’s spreading out of control. Big brands are abandoning ruggedly masculine white Christian men who own guns and drive pickup trucks—the only real Americans, as everyone knows—and crafting ads that feature woke* messaging and a horrifyingly diverse cast of characters. What’s an American patriot to do?

Right-wingers erupted in fury when Bud Light partnered with Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender influencer.** They burned their Nike shoes when the company featured Colin Kaepernick in a commercial. They smashed their Keurig machines after Keurig pulled its ads from Fox. Even Jack Daniels, which seems like the ideal brand for conservatives, is facing their anger over an ad campaign that featured drag queens—even though said ad ran two years ago.

Congressional Republicans tried, unsuccessfully, to outlaw ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance)-themed investment funds. In Florida, fascist governor Ron DeSantis is attempting to punish Disney for being unacceptably tolerant and supportive of LGBTQ rights. And we all remember Tucker Carlson raging that the M&Ms weren’t sexy enough.

The list goes on and on. In fact, so many brands are doing this that a right-wing group is planning “woke alerts” to warn conservative customers.

What’s driving the leftward shift in corporate America?

Why are so many brands doing this? Conservative explanations on this point tend to be vague.

Some of them posit that corporate CEOs are a bunch of cowards, knuckling under because they fear lawsuits, boycotts or mob attacks. Alternatively, they say that these powerful executives are afraid of being unpopular. They do the bidding of unnamed liberal elites because they want to be invited to cocktail parties.

Still others gesture toward some sinister, all-encompassing liberal conspiracy. Under this theory, corporate oligarchs have a secret hunger for power, and they’re using “wokeness” as a brainwashing tactic to force their agenda on the public. Puzzlingly, many of the same people who assert this also insist that “wokeness” is widely despised by the public. Doesn’t a propaganda tactic have to be popular to be effective?

What all these explanations have in common is that they posit that capitalism has broken down. They all ask us to believe that corporations, which spend billions of dollars each year on market research trying to determine how best to sell themselves to consumers, spontaneously decided to adopt an unpopular strategy for no compelling reason.

If we disregard these fevered conspiracy theories and instead assume that companies have a rational motive, there are more fruitful explanations to consider.

This video by HBomberGuy argues that it’s a stealth marketing tactic. In his view, corporations are acting under the theory that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Making ads that rile up certain segments of society that are easily triggered (ha!) stirs up controversy, getting their name in the media and increasing their brand recognition.***

That’s part of the truth, but there’s a simpler explanation. Why are megacompanies using woke language in their marketing? It’s obvious: Follow the money!

A bet on the future

Not only did Joe Biden win the popular vote by a margin of millions, he won an even bigger landslide of the country’s economic power. The counties that went blue in 2020 collectively represent 71% of America’s GDP. By comparison, the Trump counties contributed an anemic 29%.

In other words, blue America has the prosperous makers, while red America has the impoverished takers. The diverse, tolerant metropolitan areas that vote Democrat also create most of America’s wealth and prosperity. The Republican base consists of small towns and rural areas that are fading and dwindling. They lack the infrastructure, the amenities, and the educated workforce needed to attract investment and compete in a global economy.

This is the economic reality that most conservatives don’t realize or refuse to face. They’re a minority, and a shrinking one at that. Republican politicians know it, which is why they’re resorting to overt voter suppression to cling to power even as they claim a smaller and smaller share of the popular vote.

But that option isn’t available to corporations. Businesses can’t gerrymander themselves into increased market share. If they want to make money, they have to go where the market wants. They have to craft their advertising to appeal to the greatest number of potential customers.

That’s why we’re seeing a surge of corporate “wokeness”—not because brands are bowing to PC liberal mobs, but because they’re placing a bet on the future. It’s their way of saying, “This is where we believe our customers are going to be and we don’t want to be left behind.”

Conservatives are supposed to be staunch defenders of the free market. They were the ones who backed the Citizens United ruling that held that corporations have the same free speech rights as human beings. They’re the ones who promoted laissez-faire politics and claimed that businesses should be able to do as they see fit, unrestrained by law or regulation.

Apparently, those beliefs were insincere all along. Now that the free market is turning against them, prominent conservatives are outraged. They’re demanding that the government step in and punish companies that don’t act as they desire them to.

Corporations aren’t your friends

To be clear, “woke” marketing doesn’t mean that megacorporations have suddenly become sources of positive change. Even if they’re paying LGBTQ spokespeople or supporting Black Lives Matter, many of these same businesses are still busting unions, lobbying to keep wages and benefits low, churning out pollution, and importing supplies from countries with awful labor laws. This is a marketing scheme, nothing more.

It’s no different from standard-issue greenwashing or pinkwashing—when a corporation gives an insignificant sliver of its profit to an environmental or feminist charity, so it can stamp their logo all over its products and tout its commitment to doing good. It’s an attempt to burnish their image for the sake of progressive consumers, but few if any are doing more than the bare minimum. Some people refer to it as “rainbow capitalism” when it pertains to the LGBTQ community.

It’s a hopeful sign that more customers want to buy ethical products from socially conscious businesses. Corporations catering to that demand will give rise to more good in the world, in aggregate. It will help bring these causes into the mainstream and give them greater recognition and legitimacy. But we can also expect all the corner-cutting, puffery, false advertising and fraud that always go along with capitalism.

* “Woke” started out as a term in the social-justice lexicon, but was quickly adopted as a derogatory label by conservatives. Like “politically correct”, it has no fixed meaning other than “whatever the speaker dislikes”, but it’s frequently used to refer to progressive causes such as LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, feminism, reproductive justice, and stopping climate change.

** A hilarious footnote: In response to Budweiser’s partnership with Mulvaney, the National Republican Congressional Committee launched a vicious attack ad against them—”we can all finally admit that Bud Light tastes like water”—then yanked it hours later when someone remembered that Anheuser-Busch is a major Republican donor.

*** Steve Banerjee, the founder of Chippendales, used this tactic successfully on a small scale. He would anonymously call up churches and inform them of the scandalous activities taking place at the Chippendales club. This motivated prudish churchgoers to show up and protest, which won his business news coverage and free publicity.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...