By Sanemi Nair
The rise of social media has arguably proven to be the most significant development of the last decade. For businesses, it is both a boon and a bane. While it has increased the prominence of social activism through hashtags, Instagram accounts, Twitter handles, and much more, it also led to the emergence of Cancel Culture. What exactly is “cancel culture?” According to Merriam-Webster, cancel culture is “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.”
Cancel Culture, by some, is considered a tool for combating social injustice; its proponents argue that “cancelling” a person or company gives voices to the voiceless and helps to create an aggregate community which is sufficiently large to produce lasting change. According to Forbes Magazine, cancel culture has allowed for a single tweet to have “the power to plummet share prices, hold politicians accountable, and force celebrities to admit to wrongdoings.” The case for Cancel Culture alleges that it is best understood as a mechanism for education.
However, there is a strong case against Cancel Culture as well. Many argue that it enforces uniformity of thought and action in a mob-like fashion. If Twitter plays Thought Police and shuts down everyone who does not agree with them, there will never be any healthy debate that helps people grow. Entertaining different ideas and perspectives can lead to productive conversations which benefit society. Even former President Barack Obama sits among those who have condemned cancel culture, making the case that it is not, in fact, activism.
Individuals and celebrities are not the only victims of Cancel Culture: companies are wary of Cancel Culture as well. New research from the PR firm Porter Novelli states that 36% of Americans have cancelled a brand in the last 12 months and 23% have cancelled that brand personally, even if they loved it. An additional study by Edelman showed that 64% of consumers will boycott a company on the basis of their political standing.
Pepsi was canceled for appropriating Black Lives Matter. Starbucks was harassed for instructing employees to not wear BLM clothing. Equinox Gym faced intense backlash after its owner hosted a Donald Trump fundraiser. Some companies have not recovered from their social media cancellations, including Goya and Wells Fargo.
What can businesses do to mitigate Cancel Culture? For companies that have repeatedly been cancelled on account of their advertising and marketing strategies, it should hire people with diverse backgrounds in their marketing divisions to ensure their advertisements are acceptable and forward thinking. Such efforts could help to reduce the externalities sustained by companies like Pepsi and Dove.
Is it worth our time to cancel companies? There’s no definitive research on what exactly happens to a company’s structure after a social media onslaught, so who is really harmed by viral tweets and Instagram posts? Logically, it is not the top 1% and the CEOs who suffer. The CEO of Pepsi, Ramon Laguarta, is still worth 52.9 million dollars. The CEO of Chick Fil A is still worth 8.3 Billion USD.
Yes, a cancelled company may suffer temporarily from a drop in sales and possible store closures, but at the end of the day, minimum wage workers stand to suffer the most at the hands of cancel culture. They will be the ones who must search for new jobs. Therein lies the crossroads we currently face as a society: how can we hold companies accountable for their actions, without also holding minimum wage workers as collateral?