‘Cancel Culture’ is polarising. As it gains more media attention, headlines have begun to crop up proposing it has, like many hot button topics today, ‘gone too far’. At the simplest, ‘Cancel Culture’ is publicly shaming people for their inappropriate behaviour or opinions, typically over social media. As the name implies, inherent in the shaming is the implication that the person or business in question should be stripped of social power or cultural relevance.
Ironically, even defining ‘Cancel Culture’, also known as ‘Call-Out Culture’, is controversial. Mostly because the term itself is usually wielded by those that believe liberal-minded young people have inflicted a kind of ‘woke’ authoritarianism on the internet. There is undoubtedly a generational divide at play in understanding ‘Cancel Culture.’ Last month former US president, Barack Obama, weighed in on the issue. Directing his criticism squarely at young people and social media, he said, “That’s not activism…If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.” Soon after, the New York Times released a satirical video op-ed on the subject.
People on the other side quickly began to weigh in. They argued that older, conservative people had mischaracterised so-called ‘Cancel Culture’ and social media had become a tool in holding toxic people accountable, not unlike the picket signs traditionally used to demand social change. It had helped to mute R&B singer R. Kelly (#MuteRKelly) and cancel Harvey Weinstein when sexual abuse allegations mounted against them. People also argued that power dynamics are being ignored. Many ‘cancelled’ public figures can, in fact, face few tangible consequences.
Navigating ‘cancel culture’ is a major consideration for brands. This has been an adjustment for the industry. Luxury gym Equinox faced backlash when one of its board members hosted a fundraiser for the Trump re-election campaign, as did Prada, Gucci, and Burberry for their insensitive fashion designs, all pulled from the market this year. Before social media gave everyday people the power to amplify their views, customers didn’t have the same arena to air their grievances—or at least not at this scale.
In order not to become the next target of internet furore, it is most important brands be proactive. Firstly, listen. Take stock of your consumers’ values and assess how these values are living and breathing within your company today, rather than waiting to be called out. This needs to be consistently communicated right through your business from digital advertising to the c-suite. This is especially important for smaller brands that don’t have the resources for a ‘cancellation’ redemption strategy like a larger brand might. Also, for beauty brands, where word-of-mouth marketing is central, and influencers can add an extra element of unpredictability. If the worst does happen, keep in mind that people will be ready to scrutinise any official apology that sounds dismissive. Try to be sincere. Anything that reads like sorry you were offended (i.e. ‘we apologise for the offence caused’) can leave people feeling short-changed.