Kevin Hart had a generally great year for the better part of 2018. He made some good movies, he was receiving more opportunities and his career was on an upward trajectory. By year’s end he announced that he was scheduled to host the 2019 Oscars, a lifelong dream of his. However 2019 came and the Oscars went by and not only had Kevin not hosted the prestigious event; there was in fact no Oscar host for the first time since 1989.
Hart had made homophobic jokes in some tweets sometime between 2011 and 2012 and when this surfaced, the comedian faced a backlash, was ‘cancelled’ and had to step down from hosting the Oscars over the ensuing controversy. This fiasco remains one of the finest moments of the cancel culture, a phenomenon most social media users would be familiar with today.
Cancel culture is an offshoot of the call-out culture, a form of public humiliation that holds individuals and groups accountable for problematic actions, utterances and opinions, by calling out them out, usually on social media. It is humiliating for the individual but it seems to work.
Now although similar, the cancel culture takes things a few notches higher; it depicts a scenario in which a person (usually a celebrity) has shared a questionable or unpopular opinion, is called out for it, and subsequently ‘cancelled’ or boycotted by his/her followers, supporters, affiliate brands and the general public.
Put differently, with the call-out culture, there is general outrage against a perceived offender but with the cancel culture, the outcry goes a step further as it seeks to financially harm and not just publicly oust the accused. This usually manifests through a demand for some form of punishment for the accused where he/she loses a job position, form of power, influence, career opportunities and endorsements. Grappling with the cancel culture are comedians, actors and musicians, but its biggest targets of late seem to be companies and brands.
Now it’s understandable that people take to social media to make their grievances about a business known since there aren’t many avenues open to consumers, customers and fans to do so. And let’s face it, it is also one of the most efficient ways to get their attention and achieve maximum reputational damage especially when image and public perception is often what matters most to a business. This is exactly what cancel culture wishes to capitalize on so as to hit the business where it hurts the most.
Naturally, it’s the more ‘digitally native’ Millennials and Gen-Z propagating cancel culture since it’s these people that are likely to spend a higher proportion of time on social media, carefully picking through the details of existence, saving the best parts of their lives for the public to see, indulging in virtue signalling and encouraging ‘wokeness’ amongst their peers. Thus, all brands and businesses big and small are held to those performative standards even though in reality, no person and no business is perfect and everyone can –and will– make mistakes.
Speaking at the Obama Foundation summit, former US president Barack Obama told the audience: “The cancel culture is predicated on this idea of purity; the illusion that you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff.
“You should get over that quickly. The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids. And share certain things with you.”
But alas, social media purity remains a major yardstick and unsurprisingly, amongst this group of people, Obama is a “boomer” and “centrist” whose views should be dismissed.
Following along the cancel culture lines, McDonald’s is more likely to be cancelled for a social media post that lacks diversity shared a decade ago, than for its years of bull-headed refusal to pay out living wages to their workers. Or why people will scream and rage against whatever racial mischief Uber has committed but will not completely boycott the platform for fear of reverting to the inconvenience of taxi cabs.
To be clear, this is in no way an attempt to minimize the need for diversity at the workplace or a form of ridicule to workers seeking better compensation packages. Rather this is an effort on my part to highlight the window dressing nature of the cancel culture prevalent in our world today. And while the merits or otherwise of cancelling may still be up for debate, there is no doubt that it affects brands and is therefore a real challenge businesses have to prepare for.
What to do if people are attempting to cancel your business
The only question worth answering when it comes to cancel culture is this– how can brands and businesses avoid being cancelled over its mistakes or those of its employees and ambassadors?
In my opinion, there is no definite way to stop your brand from being cancelled because like most mob actions, there are no rules to the cancel culture. Like most movements, it evolves and changes with the times. What’s more is that as cancelling goes more mainstream, the faceless mob is sure to find new ways to be offended by old things as well as more things to be angry about. The first thing to realise is that unless your business figures out a way to make money while remaining anonymous, you’d better get used to the idea that the cancel culture will at some point in time, point accusing fingers at you since it is more or less inevitable and you should concern yourself with how best to brace your business for it.
Next, make sure to choose a set of values and stick by them. In recent times, there have been increasing calls for companies to be clear on their stand on environmental and social issues. For instance, a couple of years ago sportswear giant Nike released its “Just Do It” ad featuring Colin Kaepernick shortly after he kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racism. After the ad aired, hundreds of people took to social media posting pictures of themselves burning their Nike shoes and declaring the brand cancelled for supporting the player who they believed disrespected American values and the American flag.
This was confusing in certain quarters because Nike had done the “right thing” by campaigning against racism, but for some time, the backlash seemed unending. Nike came out of that wave of backlash and outrage with a higher valuation and earning profits of $6bn with some analysts concluding that the company had received more support for sticking to their equality and diversity values and refusing to budge.
This leads to the next key strategy for protecting your business or brand from the cancel culture; try as much as practicable to employ diversely. Encouraging diversity in your business will help it in more ways than one. It will keep your brand from falling into the narrow-minded path that leads to offensive actions which in turn could give rise to widespread cancellation. For example, a more racially and ethnically diverse team might have explained to Gucci that while the blackface balaclava could be considered fashionably edgy, it was deeply offensive to black people.
A diverse team, cutting across race, gender, body sizes and age would be the best line of defense against pitfalls such as these. It is also important to note that sticking to a set of social values and improving diversity also helps to build goodwill. All these will come in handy when you need customers and followers to defend your brand.
Next, you need to decide how your company should best respond to backlash and calls for cancelling. Swift actions are very important when arresting these sort of situations, knee-jerk reactions however are not. Rather than having a social media intern or lower level employee rush to delete unpopular tweets, a well-prepared statement from your management is often the way to go to ensure that your business is addressing the seriousness of the accusation and this will help to avoid the matter from escalating.
Finally, forge good partnerships and work hard at building a brand so renowned for quality products and services that it can bounce back from the backlash of the cancel culture. This is crucial because even when the impact of the backlash is deep, if you prepare and respond well enough, it can be short-lived and survivable. Brands like Nike and Gucci for instance, renowned for their quality, will always come back because they have built something that cannot be sacrificed for a moment of fleeting annoyance.
Society continues to evolve, and we continue to evolve ways of maintaining order, moral boundaries and social balance. The argument as to whether the cancel culture is one of those ways will continue, though it may someday fade away and be replaced by another technique to drive better behaviour. But for now, while everyone has an avatar that they long to scream through, following these few strategies may help your business push through and survive an error of judgement or mistake.*
*Not to be confused with ongoing incompetence and doesn’t factor in the severity or magnitude of the error.
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Title image of Kevin Hart at the Los Angeles premiere of his movie “Get Hard” at the TCL Chinese Theatre, Hollywood in 2015. Photo: Shutterstock.