Despite the threat of being cancelled, Dr Natalya Saldanha says brands should not bow to public pressure but instead maintain their stance on causes that reflect their ideology and commitment to consumers.

“The problem we have online is that an algorithm decides what we want to see, which ends up creating a simplistic, binary view of society. It becomes a case of either you’re with us or against us. And if you’re against us, you deserve to be ‘cancelled’,” said Rowan Atkinson, comedian and actor on cancel culture.

What is cancel culture, which has recently gained a lot of traction across social media platforms? Cancel culture, as defined by Saldanha et al 2022, is “a collective desire by consumers to withdraw support of those individuals and brands in power, perceived to be involved in objectionable behaviour or activities through the use of social media”.

Cancelling a celebrity or brand is now commonplace with brands such as Coon cheese rebranding to Cheer, Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake mix rebranded to Pearl Milling Company and more recently, controversy around popular American candy, M&M. M&M’s made headlines last year for redesigning its so-called "spokescandies". The controversy started last January when the green M&M spokescandy exchanged her white go-go boots for white sneakers. Initially, when the spokescandies were created in the 1990s, Green was the token female accompanied by three male candies, Blue, Yellow and Red. In 2012, M&M’s added Brown, another female spokescandy was dubbed their 'chief chocolate officer.'" Last January, when Green ditched her boots, Brown simultaneously traded in her stilettos for more comfortable-looking pumps with lower, block heels.

While the brand was trying to reinforce its “inclusivity and acceptance” image, some disagreed that the wardrobe change was empowering for women. Last September, M&M introduced another female candy, Purple, a peanut M&M and the first new colour in over a decade.
Purple was designed to “represent acceptance and inclusivity”, according to a press statement. However, conservatives immediately suggested that the new purple candy must be transgender and the candies were labelled “woke”.

The irony though is that the purple spokescandy was originally added to the batch 20 years ago after a poll found fans preferred the colour to other potential ones, according to The Associated Press. Purple took home 41% of a vote, beating out aqua and pink, and was available from August 2002 through the end of the year. But the company ultimately decided not to include it permanently.

The blue M&M was introduced the same way in 1995 but that colour stuck. The last straw for M&M seemed to come in December 2022 when the candy introduced all-female packaging to promote International Women’s Day. The new packaging featured the three female M&M’s – Green, Brown and Purple.

Comedy as a genre has been quite prone to cancellation, which has affected comedians such as Australian Chris Lilley and legendary British actor John Cleese. While it is becoming regular practice to “cancel” celebrities who don black or brown face in shows, comedian John Cleese announced he will host a new show on cancel culture and “people who believe (they) are purer than they actually are”. However, the Monty Python actor warned that the “wokes” will likely cancel the show, set to air on GB News, a UK news channel – one Cleese calls “a free speech channel”.

While some might argue that wokeness is prominent and perhaps originated from America, Australia as a nation is not exempt from its share of cancel culture controversies either. Take a local Paddington pub that gained notoriety because of its rebrand from the Captain Cook Hotel, which was its original name for over 100 years, to The Captain. Some argue that this is a classic example of cancel culture, which the publican denies, with the reason being that the rebrand could be inappropriately attributed to Cook’s connection with the invasion.

The “Cancel Culture and Acceptance in Australia – Exploring Australians’ Acceptance of Others and their Worldview” report found that three in five Australians, particularly Gen Z (those aged 18-27), hide their beliefs on social topics or issues from others at certain times. A further quarter of Australians have hidden their perspective on topical issues because they’re afraid of how people respond.

According to Mainstreet Insights, almost seven in 10 (68%) Australians disagree (strongly/somewhat/slightly) with cancel culture. This highlights a sense of compassion Australians are inspired to extend to others, regardless of their actions. Gen Z, who are likely to be on their devices more, are using screens as a key source to learn about others. Yet it is also true that screen-based devices and the internet is where cancel culture began.

Currently, Australians are most likely to define acceptance as accepting the individual without necessarily accepting their practice or worldview (50%). Almost two in five Australians (36%), however, define acceptance as accepting the individual and their practice or worldview, while one in ten (10%) consider acceptance to mean accepting the individual and celebrating their practice or worldview.

The current context is proving challenging for some Australians. While three in four Australians (75%) have the confidence to share their worldview even if it is contrary to broader public opinion, many Australians are self-censoring.

More than three in five Australians (65%) believe that cancel culture is affected when and with whom they share their opinions. While there is a focus on accepting an individual, more than one in two Australians (52%) are struggling to be their authentic self for fear of judgement or exclusion, while a similar proportion (54%) have hidden their perspective on topical issues because they’re afraid of how people will respond.

What action can be taken?

Brands, which include human brands like celebrities and social media influencers, need more than purpose to “take a stand” successfully but at the same time, need to be realistic about what they can do. While associating a brand with a noble cause is a good way to safeguard one’s brand from cancel culture, it is also important that this preventive measure is not momentary, regional, or situational; it needs to be long-term and relevant to consumers. Most importantly, brands should not yield to controversy and public pressure but maintain their stance on causes that reflect both the brand’s ideology and its commitment to consumers.

“The mistake that M&M made was that they didn’t own the story,” said Alex Center, who previously worked as a designer and brand strategist for Coca-Cola, and has also worked on campaigns for New Balance and Apple.

“They didn’t embrace the conversation that was happening about their brand. They were trying to push it one way with a cheery message of unity,” he said of the situation M&M’s finds itself in.

A “call in” might help brands take reactive measures to either reassure consumers about their campaign and, at the same time, reiterate that complete withdrawal or “calling out” is not the solution.

Calling brands in could reflect social media disapproval but should not lead to brands’ social handles being permanently removed from platforms. A call in could be an interview with the brand’s spokesperson or the celebrity themselves but this should not lead to distorted claims or removal of the individual or brand from their current commitments. Again, donning black or brown face while appearing controversial is not that heinous a crime for the actor or person in question to be cancelled. Instead, cancellation of Chris Lilley’s shows on Netflix could have been substituted with the comedian’s clarification on the black and brown face characters donned in his various shows in interviews and perhaps social media posts. It is worth noting though that crimes – especially sexual assault, rape and battery which R Kelly, Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein were accused of – must never go unpunished and cancellation should only be the beginning of their punishments.

Calling brands in should be our easy fix solution instead of a universal cancellation plan and perhaps this might help with everyone easing up on brands and celebrities for potential minor faux pas that could arise in future.