What is Cancel Culture? How to Not Get Canceled and Have Everyone Hate You

what is cancel culture

Once upon a time, the word “canceled” was only applicable to objects and things. Like the meeting you didn’t want to attend. The subscription to Netflix or any other subscription-based product. Your favorite TV series (Firefly, anyone?).

But since the mid-2010s, the word has evolved. It’s no longer objects and things that get canceled, but people and companies too.

Kanye? Canceled.

Scarlett Johansson? She’s canceled.

Bon Apetit? Canceled.

Pepsi? Completely, utterly canceled.

The specific reasons why these people and companies were canceled in the first place vary. But it’s ultimately their actions, statements, or sentiments that led them to be canceled by the internet-at-large.

To learn about their missteps — and ensure you don’t go down the same route — here’s this informative, insightful Process Street post where I’ll be covering:

Let’s get right into what is cancel culture and canceling.


The definition of canceled and what it means to be canceled

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To be canceled is to say or do something that the public deems too unconscionable, inappropriate, or distasteful. When the figure in question has been labeled as canceled (primarily via Twitter), members of the public withdraw their support from them. This means they’ll receive fewer opportunities, fewer sales, and perhaps even have their career come to an end.

However, the reality is that not all public figures feel the results of being canceled in the same way. Not to name names, but there are some public individuals I think we can all agree deserved their just desserts. They were at the pinnacle of fame, were household names, and were taken off-air or removed from their jobs due to the despicable things they’d done. Meanwhile, there are celebrities like Kanye whose fan base is so loyal that being canceled may result in bad press and a change in perception, but it may not stop his records from reaching the top of the charts.

With this in mind, the extent to which somebody or a company-at-large is canceled depends on what was said/done, their level of notoriety, and their fan base.

That’s what being canceled means and entails — in a nutshell, of course.

But what is cancel culture, exactly?

What is cancel culture?

Cancel culture (or ‘call-out culture’) essentially refers to the act of cancelation and canceling people/brands becoming more commonplace in society.

Needless to say, cancel culture is an incredibly divisive topic. Free speech gets called into question by those opposing cancel culture, while the other side of the argument is that cancel culture came about because, as a society, we’re now holding people accountable for their actions more.

As Joe Berkowitz, a writer at FastCompany, points out:

“The words “cancel culture” are typically used to describe a climate of hypersensitivity where everyone is scared to say anything, lest the steely, ever-shifting gaze of the mob arbitrarily point their way. But that is a mischaracterization. What people call “cancel culture” is only the possibility of consequences where none used to exist. The chance of becoming a pariah was always part of the social contract. It just used to be harder to enforce.

It used to be that publicists could squash even the most damaging rumors. It used to be that social media didn’t exist to help amplify the powerless and prove the popularity of an opinion. It used to be that women were less likely to be believed. It used to be that casual racism was far more acceptable.

All of these changes have happened fairly recently, or are still in the process of happening. Almost as though humanity exists in a constant state of evolution. If some of us experience whiplash because of how abruptly things change sometimes, well, that’s just what progress feels like.”Joe Berkowitz, What it really means to be ‘canceled’ in 2020

And that’s cancel culture defined as simply and succinctly as possible.

To illustrate further, here are some well-known examples where celebrities and brands fell from grace.

Cancel culture examples: Ellen, Kanye, and Pepsi

Ellen Degeneres and The Ellen Degeneres Show

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Ellen Degeneres was once a beloved staple of American TV. On her chat show, The Ellen Degeneres Show, there were uplifting stories from members of the public, undercover capers, and Q&As with America’s best-known, most-loved celebrities. But the operative word here, though, is “once”.

It turned out that the shiny, happy, quirky-but-not-too-quirky schtick Ellen and the show presented was nothing more than a schtick. Internally, there was a toxic workplace culture, and Ellen’s actions was what instigated a not-so-happy environment.

But how did this all come to fruition? What happened for the public to do a complete 180 from adoring to canceling Ellen?

In the beginning, there was a tweet by comedian Kevin T. Porter. It reads:

“Right now we all need a little kindness. You know, like Ellen Degeneres always talks about! 😍

She’s also notoriously one of the meanest people alive.

Respond to this with the most insane stories you’ve heard about Ellen being mean & I’ll match every one w/ $2 to @LAFoodBank.” Kevin T. PorterRight now we all need a little kindness…

It garnered a lot of interest — 13,000 retweets, 5,000 quote tweets, 71,000 likes, and countless comments. Despite only being a tweet, it caused rumbles and people started sharing anecdotes about Ellen, from being cold and icy to guests backstage and intentionally picking on new staff members, to being plain mean to Kathy Griffin.

Journalists then began to do some digging, and found that the “rumors and allegations” against Ellen’s toxicity weren’t just rumors and allegations. They were completely true.

Take this quote from Buzzfeed’s investigate piece, Former Employees Say Ellen’s “Be Kind” Talk Show Mantra Masks A Toxic Work Culture:

“BuzzFeed News spoke to one current and 10 former employees on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, fearing retribution from the award-winning NBC daytime talk show and others in the entertainment industry. They said they were fired after taking medical leave or bereavement days to attend family funerals. One employee, who claims she was fed up with comments about her race, essentially walked off the job. Others said they were also instructed by their direct managers to not speak to DeGeneres if they saw her around the office.” Krystie Lee YandoliFormer Employees Say Ellen’s “Be Kind” Talk Show Mantra Masks A Toxic Work Culture

Around the same time, it emerged that the core crew working on The Ellen Degeneres Show were told next to nothing about their pay, jobs, or work hours as the show went into hiatus during COVID-19 lockdown. Considering their on-site roles, they couldn’t exactly work remotely. And when top-level executives finally did get in touch, they told crew members they should be ready for a 60% reduction in pay. This is all while Ellen, who started self-filming her show with the help of her wife Portia de Rossi from their multi-million dollar mansion, described the quarantine lockdown as like “being in jail”.

And it doesn’t end there.

Many producers working on the show turned out to have been engaging in sexual misconduct and harassment with lower-level members of staff (read: those who didn’t have the power to speak up or combat these actions alone).

Ellen, the person, then issued an apology as the 18th season of her show launched:

“As you may have heard this summer there were allegations of a toxic work environment at our show, and then there was an investigation,” DeGeneres said. “I learned that things happened here that never should have happened. I take that very seriously, and I want to say I’m so sorry to the people who were affected. I know that I’m in a position of privilege and power, and I realize that with that comes responsibility, and I take responsibility for what happens at my show.”Hannah J. Davies quoting Ellen Degeneres, Ellen DeGeneres apologises for ‘toxic work environment’ on her chat show

For years, Ellen’s “be kind” motto was spouted to her audience but the people behind the show, nor Ellen herself, seemed to have practiced what they preached. It severely impacted viewership, with a 38% drop in ratings following the toxic workplace scandal(s).

Kanye West

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And then there’s Kanye.

Throughout the years, he’s earned himself a reputation as a trigger-happy celebrity; somebody who says and does wild, off-the-cuff things like the infamous “imma let you finish” moment which became a meme, or dressing up as a bottle of sparkling water on stage.

But from about 2018 onwards, he gained press for all the wrong reasons.

One of which was his surprising affiliation with the 45th President Donald Trump, and even going so far as posting pictures of himself wearing the red MAGA cap. This divided his fan base, with some immediately distancing themselves, while others remained to defend him. It was then made apparent that Kanye started to veer into a certain political direction, backing the likes of Alex Jones and Candace Owens. For the left-leaning members of Kanye’s audience, it was inexcusable.

Speaking of inexcusable, it was Kanye’s later (and unfounded) comments about slavery that led to folks on Twitter, blogs, and the press to say that Kanye is canceled (again).

But, and as I said earlier, Kanye hasn’t been completely canceled. Not then, and not now. He still has over 30 million Twitter followers, he still has a large platform and thereby a wide-reaching voice, and he even has hopes of becoming the next President after Joe Biden. He’s canceled, but he isn’t.

As WIRED’s senior writer Jason Parham says:

“Amid the weeks-long furor, West hasn’t entirely been canceled. He’s still afforded a platform, power, a voice. Like Trump, his mutability to the times is both disheartening and damaging, because it serves self-interest under the guise of collective progress. […] The more I think about it, the more I’m at peace with divesting from Kanye, a man who hawks empty guru-speak like “Break the simulation” or “We are the solution that heals” as a form of grandstanding.”Jason Parham, The Devolution of Kanye West and the Case for Cancel Culture

This goes to show that there are some celebrities that can do and say completely outlandish, untrue things but remain somewhat immune to absolute cancelation.

Kendall Jenner and Pepsi

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Brands, too, get canceled; it’s not only celebrities. And this example combines the two.

Back in 2017, protests were happening everywhere. From anti-Brexit to pro-Black Lives Matter protests in the UK and U.S. respectively, there were many fundamental issues that society demonstrated their displeasure about.

To be perceived as progressive and down with the kids, Pepsi tried to weigh in on the action.

However, it completely backfired.

In the ad, Kendall Jenner — who has a net worth of around $30 million — poses for a modeling shoot in the doorway of what looks to be a restaurant. Nearby, there’s a group of millennial protesters, featuring many people of color who are holding banners with the peace sign, or placards that say “LOVE”. We don’t quite know what everyone’s protesting for, but we assume it’s probably for something important.

Jenner takes notice of the crowd, stops posing in front of the camera, and takes off her blonde wig and makeup. She joins the protestors, fist-bumping them with one hand, and drinking Pepsi from a can in the other. There’s a stern-looking line of policemen stopping the protesters from moving forward. Jenner hands her can of Pepsi to one of the policemen who then drinks it. The crowd starts fist-pumping the air and jumping jubilantly.

And that’s the ad.

First off, it promotes a sentiment that complicated issues can simply be resolved by buying a product. If it were that easy, we’d be a part of a utopian civilization where everyone has the same opportunities and are given the same treatment, regardless of who they are. And in that utopian society, the cans of Pepsi would be free, obviously.

Secondly, it completely trivializes the issues protesters encounter when demonstrating, and it fictionalizes reality with a glossy, Disney-esque sheen.

Shortly after the ad went viral — for all the wrong reasons — Pepsi claimed that the company “was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding”. They pulled the ad, apologizing for putting Kendall Jenner in that situation and making the ad in the first place.

That wasn’t the end of it, though.

As marches and protests took place in 2020 after the death of George Floyd, the ad was reshared across social networks, and primarily on Twitter.

In an extremely tongue-in-cheek way, people were asking why Kendall Jenner wasn’t around when the world needed her and her Pepsi can the most, and that everything would be resolved if she only offered a police officer a can of carbonated liquid sugar.

This, then, shows that when a brand gets it indisputably wrong, it can have a long-lasting, pervasive impact. Pepsi, essentially, made themselves into a meme. But not one their marketing team would want.

How being canceled as a business severely impacts brand positioning

A severe drop in viewership. A radical change in perception. Lower purchase consideration.

As I’m sure you’ve realized by wading through the above examples of canceled celebrities and brands, being canceled is certainly no positive thing — even if an eventual ‘recovery’ of sorts is made.

Take the last example.

YouGov, a global public opinion and data company, found that Pepsi’s brand reception eventually made a recovery with millennials — something that’s rather rare — after its brand perception level had its lowest rates in 8 years after the ad aired.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Pepsi; their purchase consideration dipped considerably. Basically, this meant fewer millennials thought about buying Pepsi specifically whenever they next went to the store. In fact, only 24% of millennials would consider buying Pepsi as their next drink purchase.

This is only one example of how cancelation can have a fundamentally negative impact on brand positioning.

And when it comes to brands being canceled in particular, it’s then when corporate brand management is deployed.

Corporate brand management, essentially, is the act of mitigating any risks and stopping potential news stories from spiraling out of control, and being broadcast on every major news channel and written about in every popular paper. Crisis communication strategies are executed so brand damage is minimized as much as possible.

The thing with corporate brand management, though, is that it happens after the fact. They’re basically cleaning up the mess that’s been made, as opposed to stopping that mess from happening in the first place.

In our hectic, non-stop world, where there’s constant pressure to keep saying, keep doing, and keep being in the limelight, it often causes well-known brands and those in the public eye to do, well, stupid things. Instead of wondering about the implications of uploading a particular tweet to Twitter, or putting out a potentially controversial ad on national TV, there’s a culture of moving fast rather than moving intentionally. In many ways, it feels celebrities and brands have forgotten what we were told by our parents and teachers — to think before we speak.

Now, corporate brand management wouldn’t be necessary in the first place if a few steps were taken internally.

And, honestly?

They’re incredibly easy to do. Even if you have no prior HR, PR, or management experience.

How to stop cancelation from happening in the first place

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Don’t want to be canceled?

Of course you don’t. Nobody does. And nobody sets out to get canceled, unless they’re a fame-hungry celebrity whose ego is reliant on attention.

But as a brand and business, the “any press is good press” mantra doesn’t apply. Bad press is bad press, and bad press could very well make or break your longevity.

So, to not get canceled, here a few steps to take internally before you release potentially cancelable content to the world. They’re essentially all variations on the “think before you speak” sentiment.

Stop cancelation from happening: Get internal feedback from across the team

Let’s say, as part of its marketing strategy, your brand’s marketing team has an idea for an ad. But some elements within it could prove to be controversial, and could alienate a certain group of people away from buying, using, or even considering your product. There’s a bit of uncertainty about whether resources should be put into making the ad in the first place.

Those at the helm of the brand — the top-level executives, the directors, the C-suites — need to understand what their team as a whole thinks about it. This means going across all departments, and all levels of seniority.

What do the junior staff think? The mid-level folk? The interns?

They may be afraid to give their true thoughts and feelings, so anonymize the process. Send an anonymous survey so they can tell you the truth without fear of repercussion.

Steaming ahead with ideas that only a few thinks will be beneficial but the majority thinks will be counterproductive is not the way forward, and could quickly lead to a brand getting outright canceled by making a poor move.

Get feedback from internal staff members. Understand their thoughts and concerns. See things from their perspective. Act accordingly.

Stop cancelation from happening: Get external reviews from the public

On the flip side, if you’re worried about how the public may perceive an upcoming marketing campaign or a product release, go to the source and ask them what their thoughts are.

Back when Facebook wasn’t such a cancelable platform itself, I was a part of a Facebook focus group. I was paid over $100 per session to sit in their HQ in London for a few hours and tell them why I thought their upcoming feature projects were bad from a user perspective. These focus groups obviously had some kind of impact, because features such as [REDACTED], [REDACTED], and [REDACTED] never made the cut. Their userbase must’ve found them so uninspiring and unexciting that they simply shelved them instead.

By asking folks who aren’t stakeholders or a part of your company about content as you would a new feature, you can gauge how they feel, and how the public-at-large will then probably feel about it, too.

If the thought of showing a small, select group of external people what your brand is thinking of releasing makes employees nervous, then it’s safe to say that the thing in question is potentially cancelable material.

Stop cancelation from happening: Read the room and do your research

Perhaps you want to affiliate yourself with a certain movement, cause, idea, or identity. And if you do, by all means, go ahead; but make sure you do it correctly.

This was Pepsi’s downfall in particular; not reading the room properly and/or not knowing enough about the contemporary relations (read: conflict) between protesters and the police force. They completely botched it by not doing so.

Read the room and do your research. Get out of your bubble. Watch the news. Read the press. Use social media. Find out what people across different political affiliations are saying. Ask yourself why they are saying that. Consider the past. Consider the present. Consider the future. Then, act accordingly. And remember to not accidentally nor intentionally cause harm.

Stop cancelation from happening: Be intentional

At its core, you and other brand employees need to be intentional with whatever you create and release.

Why are you putting out that content? What’s the reasoning? What was the decision-making process behind it? What does it add? What does it say? What doesn’t it add? What doesn’t it say? What lines are potentially being crossed, and should they be? If it helps, create a digital checklist which covers all of this that you’re able to repeatedly work through.

Ultimately, by being intentional, you can stop content that could lead to your brand being canceled in its tracks.

And there you have it.

See?

It doesn’t take much work to not get canceled.

Hopefully you’ve found an answer to your “what is cancel culture” question, what happens when people or brands are canceled, and how to make sure your brand doesn’t get canceled any time soon.

Cancel culture, what it is, and what it means divides people. Some people are for it, some people are against it. What are your thoughts? Is it a good thing? Has it gone too far? Let us know in the comment section below. 👇

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Thom James Carter

Thom is one of Process Street’s content writers. He’s also contributed tech-related writing to The New Statesman, Insider, Atlassian, G2, The Content Marketing Institute, and more. Follow him on Twitter @thomjamescarter.


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