The concept of “cancel culture” is a hot topic right now.
What is cancel culture and should brands care?
The term “Cancel Culture” describes a mass online public reaction to perceived wrongs done by an individual or entity by withdrawing support or consumer patronage. The idea behind cancel culture is to hold prominent social individuals or businesses accountable for political to social transgressions through public shaming.
The US and UK are hotspots of acute polarization. This tribal mentality of being “with us or against us” makes any hope for rationality impossible and puts enormous pressure on brands that are trying to navigate an environment in which consumers are expecting them to step up. But a move in any direction can create the kind of outrage that has a material impact on the business. Especially if it is a move that leans conservative.
Scarlett Johansson was “canceled” for saying she should be allowed “to play any person, or any tree, or any animal”—though she argued her comments were taken out of context. Noel Gallagher was canceled for branding Scotland a “third-world country” Nike offended both sides of the political spectrum, first progressives by producing a shoe with the Betsy Ross flag emblazoned on its back—a flag now commandeered by Nazi groups in the U.S.—and then Republicans for withdrawing them after the uproar.
Make no mistake, all of these examples represent errors in judgment. But once upon a time, the reactions to these incidents might have been contained to a few articles in the press and heated conversations in the pub.
For leaders of companies and brands, this can be a serious concern. In a culture where missteps lead to mob mentality, how do you handle it when it happens? Today’s 24/7 internet culture means consumers can give real-time feedback to brands that can help improve products and services, but also that getting it wrong can have serious consequences. While it’s clear consumers want brands to start standing for something, “woke washing”can be even more damaging than doing nothing at all.
Cancel culture can be deemed dangerous if a hashtag is started based on a rumor that turns out to be false. A company could go out of business, or a person’s reputation could be destroyed on a falsity. It’s human nature, People feel powerless. That fuels cancel culture. When you take away people’s power, they lash out. It’s fun to join a movement. A rainbow filter, a hashtag meme — they’re all forms of voicing an opinion. This is all the same. When you can cancel someone, it satisfies you immediately. We can take to social media and make things happen is the current mentality.
Outrage is the perfect negative emotion to attract attention and engagement—and social media algorithms are primed to pounce. One person tweeting her outrage would normally fall largely on deaf ears. But if that one person is able to attract enough initial engagement, algorithms will extend that individual’s reach by promoting it to like-minded individuals. A snowball effect occurs, creating a feedback loop that amplifies the outrage. Often, this outrage can lack context or be misleading. But that can work in its favor. In fact, We’ve found that misleading content on social media tends to lead to even more engagement than verified information.
The best advice for brands during the outrage is to proactively plan their communications. Know what you stand for and what you stand against. If you’re going to change a long-standing policy, assemble a cognitive and socially diverse team and get help from the experts to explore merits and shortfalls. Empathy needs to be at the core of decision-making. Anticipate the ‘flash reactions’ and either respond coherently or pause to let the initial wave of outrage blow over.
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