Virtue signaling refers to when an individual conspicuously displays their awareness of and point of view on social issues.
The goal of such displays is to present oneself in a noble manner to garner social approval.
Examples of virtue signaling include temporarily changing your social media photo to support a cause or hitch on a bandwagon, putting a political bumper sticker on your car, and (in marketing) a brand creating advertisements in support of a social cause.
Virtual Signaling Definition
Virtue signaling is actions that are more about posturing and impression management than actual action.
In the era of social media, virtue signaling has become commonplace. Social issues are frequently discussed on social media.
In addition, liking photos or posting comments on so many platforms is convenient. It only requires a few seconds and a person can instantly appear to be virtuous.
However, actually volunteering to support a cause or combat a social injustice can involve hours, even days and weeks of participation.
As James Bartholomew, the self-proclaimed inventor of the term, points out:
“One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous.”
Virtue Signaling Examples
- Celebrity hypocrisy on Twitter: A celebrity posts lots of comments on their Twitter account expressing sympathy for the homeless, but yet, they have never donated money to a homeless shelter or volunteered in a soup kitchen.
- Political hypocrisy and lies: One politician routinely takes a public stand espousing equality and social justice, but yet their voting record involves routinely rejecting government legislation to help the poor and victims of discrimination.
- Corporate environmentalism: A large corporation tries to attach their brand to environmental causes, but refuses to stop using plastic straws and utensils.
- Vain political clothing choices: One person wears their Peace Corps t-shirt to nearly every social gathering they attend, even though it has been almost 20 years since they were in the Corps.
- College student paraphernalia: A college student posts anti-violence comments on their social media accounts and often wears clothes reminiscent from the 1960’s peace movement in the U.S.
- Social media ‘likes’: An HR manager clicks “like” on a lot of posts espousing gender equality and frequently writes comments in support of the concept. But yet, the company has hired 19 women for the last 20 openings.
- Changing your profile picture for the latest cause: When a person frequently changes the icon or avatar on their profile pic to reflect their support for the latest social cause.
- Self-adulating name-dropping: An individual giving a speech at an academic conference opens the presentation by “casually” mentioning how tired they are because they just got back from a trip to help flood victims in a nearby town.
- Volunteering purely for social recognition: When someone joins a particular charitable group so they can put it on their resume.
- Neighborly lecturing: A next-door neighbor always lectures others in the community about being the environment, but rarely recycles or sorts their trash accordingly.
- Wokeness: Often wokeness comes across as virtue signaling, especially when it involves policing people’s language and engaging in cancel culture that doesn’t actually improve anyone’s lives.
Case Studies of Virtue Signaling
The term greenwashing refers to a company’s attempt to take advantage of society’s concern for the environment. Some companies will try to present themselves as environmentally conscious, when in reality their practices may not be consistent with that impression.
An example from Investopedia explains how this works. For instance, a company may place the words “recyclable” on their product packaging. This can create a favorable impression in consumers that are environmentally conscious.
However, it is unclear as to what specifically the term “recyclable” is referring to; it could be the product, or maybe it is the packing itself.
This is the kind of clever word manipulation that exists in numerous industries.
To combat this trickery, the United States Code of Federal Regulations provide clear guidelines on how to distinguish authentic green products from greenwashing:
“Unless it is clear from the context, an environmental marketing claim should specify whether it refers to the product, the product’s packaging, a service, or just to a portion of the product, package, or service.”
2. Conspicuous Virtue Signaling (CVS) on Facebook
When people announce their charitable actions on social media such as Facebook, are they doing so to enhance their social standing, or should we be less cynical and accept that their post really reflects their actions?
Wallace et al. (2020) investigated various factors related to CVS on FB to determine how such actions benefit the poster. That is, does CVS create a self-oriented benefit of making oneself feel proud, or does it create an other-oriented benefit that involves impressing others.
The researchers collected data on samples from Ireland and the United States.
Results from both samples were similar:
“When people mention a charity that has personal meaning for them, this is associated with greater self-esteem…engaging in self-oriented CVS on Facebook may enhance their self-esteem as it allows them to reaffirm to themselves that they are unique, and standing apart from others” (p. 26).*
The results for other-oriented CVS in one of the studies were the opposite, suggesting that “…other-oriented CVS was associated with lower levels of self-esteem” (p. 27).*
3. Subtle Virtual Signaling in Conversation
Although there is some discussion as to who invented the term “virtue signaling,” there is agreement on its form of expression. The key to virtue signaling is to not be so obvious. Otherwise, a person’s attempt at self-aggrandizement is too blatant.
As Becky Pemberton points out in The Sun, one can engage in subtle virtue signaling by stating your hatred for something.
She provides an example originally offered by Mr. Bartholomew. Apparently, there was an issue with a supermarket chain that was guilty of using signage to highlight their sophistication.
As Mr. Bartholomew stated, expressing “a verbal hatred of pretentious Whole Food signs as an example of hinting that you aren’t snobby, without explicitly saying so.”
Declaring hatred for one thing implies being in favor of something else. This kind of subtlety allows one to display virtuosity without using a large neon arrow pointing in your direction.
4. When Virtue Signaling Is Good For Business
In 2016, an NFL quarterback named Colin Kaepernick chose to sit rather than stand during the national anthem. This was his form of protesting against racial prejudice and inequality.
In the months that followed, voices across the political spectrum either applauded or condemned his actions.
In 2018, Nike launched an ad campaign with Kaepernick that included the slogan: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”
Some would say it was a risky move, while others would see it as savvy marketing.
Nike reported a 31% increase of online sales for 2018 over the previous year. Greg Sterling (2018) from MarTech reported that marketing experts had “estimated that the free exposure was the equivalent of a $43 million media buy.”
The benefits of the campaign were also reflected in the stock market. As Renae Reints reported, Nike shares rose 36% in 2018 over 2017. “Nike’s market value has risen by $6 billion since its controversial decision…”
No one can say definitiveely if Nike was virtue signaling or sincerely supporting a cause they truly believe in.
5. When Brands Get It Wrong
The case study of Nike presented above is an excellent example of a brand doing everything right when it comes to attaching their identity to a social cause. Unfortunately, not all brands are as adept.
Berthon et al. (2021) provide several examples of brands whose attempts at virtue signaling didn’t exactly pan-out as the marketing team had planned.
The authors describe how Beyond Meat’s products, despite the company’s efforts to espouse the virtues of a plant-based diet, have been heavily criticized by nutrition experts.
The critics argue that the products “are not healthier than red meat and contain hyper-processed ingredients, unnecessary additives, and filler and fake blood” (p. 31).
In another example, when Apple stopped including chargers for its new iPhones they stated that it helped cut back on e-waste.
However, as the authors point out, “Cynics argue that Apple is merely taking part in moral grandstanding and cutting costs while not passing the savings on to customers” (p. 32).
Virtue signaling is when a person, or company, displays their support for virtuous causes. The plethora of social media platforms makes the opportunity for virtue signaling easy and convenient.
When brands attempt virtue signaling it can go incredibly well, or lead to a scrutiny of motives and questioning sincerity. When individuals engage in virtue signaling it can be viewed from two different angles.
On the one hand, stating one’s opinion and taking a stand on important social issues should be applauded and encouraged.
On the other hand, a more cynical point of view believes that the public display of such opinions is more an act of self-aggrandizement than an admirable risk.
Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure what anyone’s motives really are. Mindreading hasn’t been invented yet and none of us can walk around with a polygraph machine to administer as we please.
Berthon, P. R., Ferguson, S. T. L., Pitt, L. F., & Wang, E. (2021). The virtuous brand: The perils and promises of brand virtue signaling. Business Horizons, 66, 27-36. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bushor.2021.10.006
Demsar, V., Sands, S., Campbell, C., Pitt, L. (2021). “Unprecedented,” “extraordinary,” and “we’re all in this together”: Does advertising really need to be so tedious in challenging times? Business Horizons, 64(4), 415-424. Doi: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0007681321000094
Reints, R. (2018, September 23). Colin Kaepernick pushes Nike’s market value up $6 billion, to an all-time high. Fortune. Available at https://fortune.com/2018/09/23/nike-market-value-colin-kaepernick-ad/
Sterling, G. (2018, September 11). Report: Nike’s sales jump 31% in wake of Kaepernick ad campaign. MarTech. Available at https://martech.org/report-nikes-sales-jump-31-in-wake-of-kaepernick-ad-campaign/
Tosi, J., & Warmke, B. (2016). Moral grandstanding. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 44(3), 197-217. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/papa.12075
Wallace, E., Buil, I., & De Chernatony, L. (2020). ‘Consuming good’ on social media: What can conspicuous virtue signalling on Facebook tell us about prosocial and unethical intentions? Journal of Business Ethics, 162(3), 577-592. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-3999-7
* Note: These quotes come from the downloaded manuscript which contain different page numbers than the journal publication.