Dodging Cancel Culture in Advertising and Branding 

By Halle Farmer

Working in 21st-century media is a slippery slope. Beyond mastering the newest technology and communicating in a fractured media landscape, it is now also our job to navigate through the challenges of cancel culture. Cancel Culture is a new epidemic that can make or break a company’s brand in seconds. One wrong move, and audiences pick up their torches and pitchforks. 

 While initially a way to hold people, companies and other organizations accountable for their actions as part of political discourse, it has quickly become the internet creating demise when a brand moves against its beliefs. This involves the calling out the questionable, unpopular or insensitive opinion or action; then withdrawal of support; then a boycott of the person, company, or organization. Let’s look at a few examples. 

Bud Light’s Partnership with Dylan Mulvaney 

Earlier this year Anheuser-Busch conducted a marketing campaign featuring transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Mulvaney promoted the company’s “Easy Carry Contest” on her social media and posted content including a Bud Light can with Mulvaney’s face that was sent to her by Anheuser-Busch. Almost immediately, Bud Light’s right-wing supporters started boycotting the beer to the point where Kid Rock posted a video of himself shooting Bud Light cans with an AR-15 to his social media. 

Anheuser-Busch made a statement during the height of the controversy to FOX News saying Mulvaney was just one of the many influencers who allow the brand to “authentically connect with audiences across various demographics and passion points.” They also stated that the cans with Mulvaney’s face printed on them were gifts to the influencer and were not for sale to the public. 

This did not stop the boycott and the company had a 10.5% revenue decline from April to June compared to the sales in the year prior. Anheuser-Busch admitted that this decline was primarily due to the loss in sales of Bud Light. Bud Light also lost its long-standing spot as America’s best-selling beer and is now in second place behind Modelo Especial. 

Tampax Dirty Tweet

 In November of last year, the biggest tampon company, Tampax, tweeted a risqué joke that states, “You’re in their DMs, We’re in them. We are not the same.” The tweet got some backlash over the idea of sexualizing tampons but most of the controversy was over the pronouns used in the tweet. The tweet hit the media at the same time the company was working with the Phluid Project for hiring nonbinary people for an ad campaign. This sparked a campaign against the company that used the hashtag “#BoycottTampax,” which was trending on Twitter for an entire day

  The controversy soon ended after the boycotters started turning on one another for their reasons behind the boycott. Many of them were upset over the sexualization of tampons while others were angry about the company making their product gender neutral. Many of the Tweets under the hashtag were mainly transphobic attacks on the company, which upset the boycotters who were only mad about the joke. Tampax never made a public statement on the matter and remains the tampon empire not experiencing a decline in revenue over the controversy. 

What Can We Learn From These Cases?

 No doubt Cancel Culture has completely changed the advertising and public relations work environment. More than ever the industry is a tightrope through the media to not start any controversy, while also being expected to take an issue on causes that the audience cares about. For this reason, identifying and having extensive knowledge on the target audience is more important than ever. In earlier times it was known that most brands stayed out of the political climate, but today that is looked at as complicit which is equally as bad. In a 2021 Porter Novelli study, it was shown that even the more loyal consumers do not keep you safe, saying 66% of people admitted that even if they love a company or product, they will still “cancel” them for anything wrong or offensive. 

The Budlight and Tampax examples illustrate this very slippery slope. Understanding the social climate is a top priority in the advertising world. A simple partnership with someone Budlight target audience’s belief did not align with created a plummet in sales. Tampax on the same note, partnering with a more progressive company and tweeting what they thought was a harmless joke created a media uproar against them. 

So the question becomes,  what can advertisers do to navigate around cancel culture? According to one study, 72% of respondents feel more empowered to voice their opinions and thoughts on companies via social media than ever before. Understanding their views, values, and behaviors is the safest route. There isn’t a right side, so the importance lies in being on the side of your consumers and your target audience. In a market where consumers are lining themselves with the beliefs of their brands, knowing the consumer’s belief can be the difference between a successful advertising campaign and causing a media uproar.  

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