In recent years, thanks to social media, “cancel culture” has been included in the mainstream lexicon. The term 2020 has become a central component of the public debate in politics, culture and the media. In short, abandonment culture refers to the practice of withdrawing support for a person or company – often on social media – based on their views or actions.
The current pandemic has only helped increase the cultural impact of the internet on society. Since the physical world has been blocked, people have been spending record time online. At the same time, social isolation has further facilitated online interaction. This triggered a new wave of social activism, which was reinforced by the Black Lives Matter movement. All of these factors combined make cancellation one of the most controversial issues of the decade. Furthermore, this is likely to be the start of an ongoing struggle to maintain or reshape the prevailing narrative by which we live our lives. A battle that will have a huge impact on brands and marketers alike.
To break off the case against culture
Critics of the culture of cancellation see the movement as a modern form of mob rule. The cancellation prevents the open debate that has long been the basis of democracy. Ultimately, the ability to entertain different ideas and perspectives creates the conditions for social progress. Some of the greatest breakthroughs in human history have occurred when cultures have shared and exchanged opposing ideas. While the culture of abandonment can summarize opposing viewpoints without proper process or context.
The term’s surge in popularity has even mobilized 150 public figures to denounce the spread of the demolition culture. Notable signatories include JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Margarete Atwood, Malcolm Gladwell, and Noam Chomsky. The open letter in Harper’s magazine warns of a fashion culture of public shame. It says: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is getting closer every day.” The letter comes after JK Rowling was canceled on Twitter for a number of social media posts and essays labeled as “transphobic”. The online cancellation culture has been accused of promoting cultural censorship, as featured in the removal of Gone with the Wind (recently returned with a disclaimer), Cops and Little Britain. Many film critics argue that old content should not be deleted, but rather understood in the context of that particular time in history. If we simply nullify through the lens of modernity all art that is viewed as offensive, what would we be left with? And is it possible to separate art from artist? If not, what happens to the works of Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Richard Wagner, John Wayne and many others?
Cancel the case for the culture
In contrast, supporters see the abandonment culture as an important tool for achieving social justice. The internet and social media in particular offer a platform for historically underserved people to exchange views, opinions and experiences. In many ways, Twitter gives groups excluded from traditional institutions such as politics, education, business, and the media the opportunity to have a say. Today, marginalized groups no longer rely solely on the prejudices that were built for the privileged few. Any citizen with access to the internet can now write a statement, share their story and tell the truth to power. A single tweet has the power to lower stock prices, hold politicians accountable, and force celebrities to admit wrongdoing. Simply put, the culture of demolition represents the voice of the voiceless.
But there is also a deeper level of social, cultural and historical context that can be applied to the cultural debate on breaking off. It could be argued that there is no culture of abandonment. Instead, the term has become a convenient red herring used to silence legitimate protests and maintain the status quo. From this perspective we see an authentic attempt to correct historical errors and push for significant change. For example, the so-called demolition culture contributed to the #MeToo campaign becoming mainstream. Make sure that #BlackLivesMatter has been used on Twitter and Instagram since 2014. And gather millions of people around the world to protest against climate change. One could argue that cancel culture is synonymous with legitimate criticism from groups – who until recently lacked the means to express themselves.
What all of this means for brands
More recently, the cancellation culture debate has spread to the world of marketing and advertising. In the past, brands have stayed out of politics for good reason. If they take sides, it can alienate a large portion of their customer base. However, in today’s increasingly polarized climate, taking no sides may be the greater risk. Brands can no longer afford to remain neutral as neutrality is viewed as complicity. However, empty declarations of solidarity are no longer sufficient. Today’s consumers are more informed and empowered than ever. They expect you to put your words into action. And when brands fail to deliver on their promises, consumers have the knowledge, determination, and platform to challenge them. In short, there is no place to hide.
According to a study by Edelman, 64% of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand simply because of their position on a social or political issue. Just a few years ago, the term boycott was seen as something restricted to the radical fringes of society. But today boycott has become a common consumer response. And it’s not just aimed at socially irresponsible brands. But also towards brands that exaggerate their social and ecological references. For example, the Swedish vegan milk brand Oatly has long been a favorite with eco-friendly consumers. However, fans of the alternative milk brand have begun boycotting the company after it sold $ 200 million of shares to a consortium that includes Blackstone after a Twitter thread accused the investor of deforestation in the Amazon to have contributed. Similarly, Lululemon came under fire for sponsoring an event on “Decolonization of Gender” and “Resistance to Capitalism” despite a market valuation of $ 45 billion.
Though consumers are increasingly demanding that brands take a stand. It’s equally important to remember that 56% believe that too many brands are using social issues as a marketing ploy to get more of their product to sell. Brands are becoming more and more reactive in the race to reflect on social values, but this can lead to backlash from consumers if the feeling is not supported by authentic action.