From top MPs, to celebrities to the next-door neighbour, we're often quick to publicly embrace and declare our support for socially just and environmentally friendly causes.

But as we load our social media pages and click the like button to back campaigns to achieve goals like gender equality, end child poverty and cleanse our oceans, the support is dismissed by some as virtue signalling or woke washing.

It has also been touted as slacktivism — boosting egos but effecting little.
And for companies, it is a marketing tool.

Actress Elisabeth Moss asked all the designers she wore at the Golden Glove to give to charity. Photo / NBCU
Actress Elisabeth Moss asked all the designers she wore at the Golden Glove to give to charity. Photo / NBCU

More than 500,000 Kiwis have added the "I AM HOPE" Kiwibank frame to their Facebook profile pictures after the bank pledged to donate $1 to Gumboot Up NZ for every New Zealander who adopted the frame.


Minister for Women and Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter made international headlines when she told on Instagram how she cycled to Auckland Hospital to give birth.

And awards season this year was awash with wokeness. The Handmaid's Tale star Elisabeth Moss used her Golden Globes appearance to launch Red Carpet Advocacy. The initiative asks for charitable donations from designers worn on the red carpets.

Every label Moss wore — a Christian Dior Couture bustier dress, Neil Lane diamonds, Tamara Mellon shoes and a Roger Vivier bag — donated to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Then If Beale Street Could Talk star Regina King used her speech for her best supporting actress win to announce that women would account for at least half of the staff on future projects she produces.

At the Oscars, the official theme was inclusivity. The event proceeded without a host for the first time in 30 years as organisers couldn't find one woke enough - comedian Kevin Hart was forced to give up the role after a number of old homophobic tweets resurfaced.

Many women shunned designer dresses on the red carpet in favour of tuxedos or pant suits, including Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler and Elsie Fisher. A man wore a tuxedo dress — Pose actor Billy Porter said he wanted to make a point about black masculinity.

In his acceptance speech, BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee ordered the room to "make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let's do the right thing".

And the major gongs went to an actor playing a gay rock star (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody); an actress playing Queen Anne, who engaged in lesbian sex scenes (Olivia Colman, The Favourite); and director Alfonso Cuaron for a film about a maid working for an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City (Roma).

Then there was the Best Documentary Short winner Rayka Zehtabchi; "I can't believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar," (Period. End of Sentence).

It followed a 2018 award season fresh in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the rise of #MeToo. The Golden Globes implemented an all-black dress code (although actress Blanca Blanco didn't get the memo and received death threats on social media after opting for a risque crimson gown); Natalie Portman introduced the nominated directors as "all male", and best actress winner Frances McDormand promoted "inclusion riders", a provision in an actor's or filmmaker's contract that requires diversity on the movie. Matt Damon, Michael B Jordan, and other powerful men announced they'd insist on their implementation.

Virtue signalling refers to the conspicuous expression of moral values.

Blanca Blanco didn't get the memo about wearing black to the Golden Globes. Photo / Getty
Blanca Blanco didn't get the memo about wearing black to the Golden Globes. Photo / Getty

It is said to have been first used in signalling theory, to describe social behaviours that could be used to signal virtue — such as environmental responsibility being associated with consumers' decisions to buy "green" products.

But in recent years it has also become commonly used as a pejorative phrase.

British author James Bartholomew has been credited with popularising the term, using it in a 2015 article in The Spectator to describe public, empty gestures intended to convey socially approved attitude without any associated risk or sacrifice.

One of the first major examples was the 2014's viral ice-bucket challenge, which implored people to tip an icy cold bucket of water on themselves in support of ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease or motor neurone disease.

Former US President George W Bush takes part in the ice bucket challenge in 2014. Photo / supplied
Former US President George W Bush takes part in the ice bucket challenge in 2014. Photo / supplied

Business giants Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos and former president George Bush joined a long list of celebrities who accepted the challenge.

Many stars also accepted the no-makeup selfie challenge. Adele, Beyonce and Rihanna posted pictures on their social media sans makeup, asking people to donate to cancer research.

In 2016, supporters of marriage equality in Australia were able to change their Facebook profile photos to a colourful rainbow in a partnership between the social networking giant and an advocacy group.

The phrase virtue signalling is used "in the belittling of and accusations against folk who are expressing progressive viewpoints", says Auckland University associate professor of sociology Campbell Jones.

"It's often used to make claims about the psychological motivation of people — saying, 'well this person is just trying to make themselves look good'."

Its use has gained traction in the past three or four years, mirroring a rise in the right wing, whose adherents have seized upon the modern use of the phrase to "call people out", says Jones.

Customer expectation of businesses to behave well has been recognised by business for decades but especially since the cultural revolution of the 1960s, when "there were widespread protest movements against business, against capitalist corporations", says Jones.

People are quick to declare their backing of socially just causes on the public platforms because "human beings care deeply about what other people think about them".

But if companies' good deeds are motivated more by a desire for brand recognition, then it is essentially a marketing move, he says.

Jessica Vredenburg, a senior lecturer in marketing at Auckland University of Technology, says consumers are increasingly making choices based on their beliefs and are looking to engage with brands that exhibit the same beliefs.

"This is especially true for younger, more progressive consumers, who will have increasing marketplace power in coming years."

The challenge raised money for breast cancer. Beyonce Knowles also took part. Photo / supplied
The challenge raised money for breast cancer. Beyonce Knowles also took part. Photo / supplied

Companies engage in brand activism to stand out from competitors, says Vredenburg.

"Brands have historically not engaged in social and political conversations for fear of alienating customers. But this is changing."

Companies' practices are much more heavily scrutinised by consumers with the global connectivity through the internet and social media, she says.

"In the past, brands controlled the flow of information.

"But the rise of social media, coupled with increasing technological capability and connectivity, permits consumers to dictate in a way what they expect from brands and react to brand's attempts to meet their expectations.

"It is clear that the large millennial consumer base are increasingly sceptical of corporations, so brands are looking to use this transparency afforded by the internet and social media to be perceived as effective corporate citizens by engaging in social and political conversations.

"But if not well executed, consumers are equipped with the means, via social media etcetera, to mock, ridicule and boycott the brand. It can be a high-risk/high-reward strategy."

For example, when companies like Chevrolet, Virgin and Ben & Jerry's all took a stance on marriage equality, they were accused of using marriage equality as a marketing tool.

But do these kinds of campaigns and outspokeness actually effect change?

It's "reassuring if you tell yourself the story that you're a good person, you believe in good things", especially when the odds of your effecting change by yourself may seem almost insurmountable, says Jones.

Someone might "really like to signal that I think that child poverty is bad or homelessness is bad".

"But how do you (as an individual) actually stop child poverty? It's so awfully hard for many people who are frustrated about the world, who want the world to be a better place, to actually effect any positive change."

But change did come from those early viral challenges. The makeup-free selfies saw thousands donated to the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation — although the campaign also came with criticism it endorsed the idea women should feel vulnerable without make-up.

The ice-bucket challenge also saw about $35,000 donated to NZ's Motor Neurone Disease Association and more than $100 million to the US ALS Association. It was credited with helping identify a gene that causes the disease.

And the #MeToo movement and the effect of those who have spoken out has seen major change around the world, not limited to more victims feeling confident enough to speak out and donations being made to the charities who help them.

Mike King posted this image to facebook 18 February 2019 as part of the I Am Hope Kiwi Bank promotion picture=a.
Mike King posted this image to facebook 18 February 2019 as part of the I Am Hope Kiwi Bank promotion picture =a.

Meanwhile the Kiwibank – which raised its fundraising cap from $20,000 to $50,000 and then $100,000 as its I AM HOPE campaign went viral — was initially criticised for limiting its donation. But more than 500,000 people have changed their profile photos.

The bank, which reported a half-year profit of $62m, was also accused of running a promotional exercise and questioned on why it didn't just donate the money without the Facebook exercise.

"There has been some conversation that has looked at the cynical side of what has been created but more generally the sentiment has been incredibly positive," says Kiwibank head of brand and marketing, Simon Hofmann.

"Giving a donation without the Facebook frame would have helped the fund, but not the conversation.

"Mike will tell you that one of the best ways to solve this issue is to talk about it.

"Without the frame we wouldn't have given Mike the same launch platform and we wouldn't have started a national conversation. The frame was a first, it's an innovate tool, we backed the idea and it has been hugely beneficial."

The Gumboot Up NZ initiative, working alongside Mike King's I AM HOPE charity, aims to help young Kiwis get free counselling.

It also supports Gumboot Friday, which encourages Kiwis to wear gumboots on April 5, with the aim to raise $2m for the cause.

Kiwibank will have donation boxes at branches around the country and bank staff will be encouraged to use their annual paid volunteer day to help out.

All 2500 staff will also be encouraged to go to work in their gumboots.

"On top of what Kiwibank has contributed, Mike has a Give-a-Little page, Key to Life that has received over $34,000 in donations from the publicity," says Hofmann.

Vredenburg says the campaign stood out for its authenticity.

"Kiwibank have a history, or track record, of prosocial behaviours. So, this campaign is more likely to be perceived as authentic by consumers than if a brand without a history of prosocial behaviours were to engage in this way with a cause.

"By involving the public in this way, Kiwibank does benefit from positive sentiments generated by these actions, which they wouldn't have received if they had made a direct donation to the charity."

A new research project — "Brands taking a stand: authentic brand activism or woke washing?", conducted by Vredenburg and three other marketing lecturers, is under review with an academic journal.

San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick, right, and Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers. Photo / AP
San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick, right, and Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers. Photo / AP

The study involved focus group discussions with participants reflecting on their views of brands engaging with social and political causes.

The project showed there is a rising desire for companies to do this.

Groups were asked about the recent advertisement featuring NFL football player Colin Kaepernick by Nike. The sportswear brand appeared to pick a side whe it featured the athlete — the first not to stand for the US national anthem to protest police brutality against African-Americans — in imagery accompanied by the slogan "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything".

The ad triggered a boycott of Nike goods, but reportedly also earned $6 billion for the company and raised brand awareness among Nike's target demographic.

Sixty per cent of respondents indicated they felt positively about Nike after viewing the advertisement. Of those, 73 per cent indicated this was an appropriate topic for Nike to engage in. But only 45 per cent indicated they felt Nike had a genuine commitment to these values.

"When the (brand) messaging and practice align, consumers are more likely to perceive this to be authentic brand activism and view it favourably," Vredenburg says. "If consumers perceive an inconsistency between messaging and practice, in particular articulating a message not backed up with practice, this can be interpreted as what we term 'woke washing' ... in that the brand is not walking the talk essentially.

"Woke has become a byword for social awareness, and brands are considered woke when their messaging points out political and social injustice."

A way to avoid being labelled a virtue signaller is "if you say something, then you do what you say", says Jones.

One of the reasons people dismiss others for virtue signalling is that they believe "that human beings are inherently selfish, are inherently ... individualistic", says Jones.

"If ... that's your world view, then it's quite easy to go around belittling anyone else who expresses a viewpoint that says, well actually human beings are socially-minded and do care for other people and can try and work together to make things better."

Julie Anne Genter Green Party MP cycles to Auckland Hospital to give birth. Photo / Supplied
Julie Anne Genter Green Party MP cycles to Auckland Hospital to give birth. Photo / Supplied

When Genter cycled to hospital at 42 weeks pregnant to be induced last August, it was also thrown about as an example of "virtue signalling".

But she backed up her feat — on her first day back from pregnancy, she announced a $23m increase in funding to help tens of thousands of school children get access to bikes, helmets, riding tracks and safety lessons.

Jones says the modern pejorative use of the term virtue signalling has now become ironic. He points to a description of it by British neoliberal political theorist and economist Sam Bowman. "Saying virtue signalling is hypocritical," Bowman wrote.

"It's often used to try to show that the accuser is above virtue signalling and that their own arguments really are sincere.

"Of course, this is really just another example of virtue signalling."