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When it comes to cancel culture, the court of public opinion still reigns supreme. With the rise of social media (and our increasing expectation for businesses and service providers to reflect the values that we hold dear), brands have never been under more scrutiny to do, say and sell the right thing.
Brands can be canceled for several reasons, which we'll get to later in this article. Data privacy breaches (such as Facebook's scandals) are one of them — as a start, we encourage companies to be very transparent about the data they collect and what they do with it.
What exactly is meant by a brand being "canceled." An offshoot of the call-out culture that spread with the rise of movements such as the #MeToo campaign, the phrase "to be canceled" refers to the brand or person in question being entirely boycotted and ostracized, with all public support being withdrawn.
Typically (and somewhat ironically), a good deal of social media attention tends to accompany a brand experiencing cancellation. Hashtags involving the brand name and a demand for them to be canceled will commonly crop up, and this is often how campaigns encouraging their boycott will be spread.
Of course, it's rare for a brand to fail following cancellation truly, but these situations still require careful navigation and a well-thought-through response. In this article, we'll explore a few of the brands who've come through this form of crisis; look at a few of the ways you can respond if your own brand experiences a backlash of this nature. Most importantly, we'll set out a few ways to help avoid the problem altogether.
18 brands that have experienced cancel culture
Cancel culture is starting to experience something of a backlash. Even former US President, Barack Obama, has come out against the social trend in a speech given in support of the Obama Foundation –
"That is not activism, that is not bringing about change. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws."
But even with the tide starting to turn, plenty of brands have still experienced this form of backlash in recent years.
Commonly, a cancellation will accompany an accusation of hypocrisy. With cause marketing forming such a core component of many modern brands' promotional strategies, the public are swift to pick up upon a mismatch in terms of messaging here.
1. Urban Outfitters' Cultural Appropriation
In the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, many brands were eager to position themselves as allies, with campaigns built around their commitment to racial equality. However, this backfired for many, including Urban Outfitters, who were immediately called out on their problematic past associations with cultural appropriation.
Also, many past employees of companies continue to speak out on discriminatory or racist experiences they had while working at certain companies. In 2020, Reformation came under fire, and promised to make change in their organization after acknowledging their wrongdoings.
2. GoDaddy's Inappropriate Behavior
Another common cause for cancellation are the actions of a board member or stakeholder. In 2011, GoDaddy's founder Bob Parsons, videotaped himself shooting an African elephant and posing with its body. The public outcry was instant, and his unapologetic stance, coupled with the company's hugely unpopular support for the Stop Online Piracy Act, saw the hosting company lose 70,000 domains in a single week. Bob Parsons stepped down from the board in 2018.
3. Aunt Jemima's Stereotypes
Brands that fail to adapt their branding to meet modern standards can also come up against big problems. Many businesses that have benefited from tired and insensitive stereotypes, either for their naming or representation, have had to rethink how they position their offering to an increasingly enlightened, modern audience. In the USA, a famous syrup brand, Aunt Jemima's, was "cancelled" - swiftly followed by its partner in crime, Mrs. Butterworth's pancake mix.
4. Balenciaga's Child Models
Balenciaga made global headlines for the wrong reasons for its Balenciaga Gift Shop campaign, featuring images of children with the brand’s handbags that looked like teddy bears in bondage gear. Other ads in the campaign featured images of a Supreme Court ruling against child porn, suggesting that the brand opposed the judgement.
Needless to say that members of society were outraged. Long-time Balenciaga model Kim Kardashian said she would be "re-evaluating her work with the company" and several other fashion industry executives indicated their displeasure.
5. Kanye West's Controversy
Kanye West (also known as Ye) is no stranger to controversy. However, he's been on the receiving end of some extremely negative press coverage since the past few months, starting from his decision to wear a "white lives matter" t-shirt at a fashion event in Paris. Ye's comments, including his praise of former U.S. president Trump, has caused him to lose deals with Gap, Adidas, and Balenciaga, making him one of the most cancelled celebrities of 2022.
6. Goya’s CEO steps into it
Cancel culture often gets depicted as an overreaction to a brand or individual. But often enough, a brand, celebrity, or well-known entity finds itself in the crosshairs for not being mindful of how its views square up against its target audience.
A great example of this is Goya. Known as one of the largest Hispanic-owned food brands in the United States, the company has a deep portfolio of offerings ranging from spices and candies to pantry essentials like beans and empanada wraps. The CEO, Robert Unanue found himself in hot water in 2020 when at a presidential reception he shared that the nation was “truly blessed at the same time to have a leader like President Trump…”
However, given the Trump administration’s oftentimes adversarial stance towards the Latinx and Hispanic communities, the speech didn’t go over well. Calls for #BoycottGoya and #Goyaway began to trend on social media as consumers began advocating for finding alternative brands to buy household essentials. The outcry was later picked up by advocacy groups like United We Dream and United Farm Workers.
While Goya’s bottom line wasn’t impacted in the long term, its CEO Unanue probably learned that he should be more mindful of what he says — especially if his political views are unlikely to follow those of many of his customers.
7. Tampax Gets a Bit Too Spicy on Social Media
Tampax is a staple for many women as a go-to solution for feminine products. The brand made a massive faux paus in 2022 when a glib tweet immediately received backlash. The trending hashtag #BoycottTampax emerged after the tampon brand released a tweet saying “You’re in their DMs. We’re in them. We’re not the same.”
Tampax was accused of sexualizing tampons. While the brand later deleted the tweet and issued a mea culpa, the cancel movement took on a life of its own in a new direction. Anti-trans commenters picked up the hashtag and used the moment to rail against the company’s decision to use transgender people in its advertising.
8. Amazon is Shut Out of New York
New Yorkers are incredibly vocal citizens. And one thing any real New Yorker will tell you is that they don’t want the Olympics or Amazon coming to their city. In a city of over 8 million people that have to share cramped and overpriced housing, when big business eyes the city that never sleeps, they get weary.
In 2018, Amazon publicly announced its interest to move the company headquarters to two new cities, one of which would be New York. Citizens and local politicians were none too pleased given Amazon’s anti-union stance and ability to squeeze out mom-and-pop sellers. More importantly, opposition to the potential tax credits the conglomerate would receive from the city and state, as well as the risk of further raising already sky-high housing costs weighed heavily on people’s minds. Eventually, Amazon scrapped its New York expansion plans in 2019.
9. Heineken’s Poor Planning
Oftentimes, cancel culture arises because the boardroom lacks diversity. If you don’t have diverse voices during the development stages, you end up creating campaigns and messaging that miss the mark. Or more often than not, you create imagery or wording that overlooks what would be considered obvious red flags to people from marginalized groups.
Heineken can attest to this thanks to a 2018 ad to promote the brand’s new light beer. The video clip shows a beer sliding down a bar. As it makes its way, it passes several darker-skinned patrons until it stops in front of a visibly lighter customer. The slogan “lighter is better” is shown on the screen.
After being accused of overt racism by many — including celebrity Chance the Rapper — the brand pulled the ad and issued an apology. But, it does make you wonder how many people in the internal departments viewed this ad and approved it before it was released to the public.
10. Apple and Planned Obsolescence
Apple has a storied history of creating products that consumers love, but then those items not living up to expectations. On more than one occasion, the tech giant has found itself under investigation for knowingly allowing faulty devices to exist — and not offering restitution to its customers.
In 2017, Apple confirmed what consumers had long suspected, that certain products began to purposely work less efficiently as they aged. The brand admitted that it intentionally slowed down older iPhones under the guise of trying to protect the phone. Along with a big apology, the brand also offered battery replacements at a reduced price of $29 rather than the standard $49.
11. Charlie Sheen — Winning and Tiger Blood
If you’re an elder Gen Z’er or older, you are probably familiar with the actor Charlie Sheen. He’s been a fixture for many people since the 80s and is one-third of the famous Sheen/Estevez crew (the others being his father Martin Sheen and brother Emilio Estevez). Sheen is no stranger to drama and has had his name in the papers on more than one occasion.
But in 2011, things took a turn when several widely reported interviews he granted — including to the controversial Alex Jones — left him looking like an unhinged man. Highlights included memorable lines like “winning”, claiming that he used tiger blood, and using inflammatory language to describe show creator Chuck Lorre. The actor drove his career off a cliff in a matter of a few days.
Not long after, he was let go from his contract with Two and a Half Men on CBS when he was the highest-paid actor on episodic television and was later checked in for drug addiction treatment.
12. Rosanne Barr — the Ambien Made Me Do It
If you’re familiar with Rosanne Barr, you know that she’s no stranger to controversy as her career has been highlighted by it. From screeching the National Anthem at a San Diego Padres game to generally being at odds with the mainstream, she’s made a career out of ruffling some feathers.
However, she ruffled one feather too many in 2018 when she took to Twitter to voice her displeasure in a racist tweet that compared former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett (a Black woman) to an ape. As a half-hearted mea culpa, she blamed her racist rant on taking too many Ambien — prompting the pharmaceutical producer, Sanofi, to publicly state that “racism is not a known side effect” of taking their drug.
ABC swiftly kicked her off of the wildly popular Rosanne reboot, paused the show, and retooled it as The Conners. To explain her absence, they killed off her character in an opioid drug overdose.
13. Coke Fails to Read the Room
Cancel culture has technically been around forever, it’s just that now it has a name. While most cancellations occur because of prior bad acts, sometimes a brand just doesn’t understand what their customer wants and a new release goes poorly — very poorly.
In 1985, Coca-Cola was in a neck-and-neck fight with Pepsi and they wanted to finally come out on top. The brand launched “New Coke”, a new formulation of the company’s classic recipe which hadn’t been changed in 99 years. Unfortunately, people hated the drink and the “New Coke” campaign is considered one of the biggest marketing flops in corporate history.
Consumers wrote and called into the brand, doing everything possible to make it clear that under no uncertain terms should Coca-Cola continue to produce “New Coke”. The “New Coke” campaign flopped and by July 1985, Coca-Cola Classic was back on the shelves. More importantly, New Coke — or Coke II as it was renamed — didn’t make it to 1986.
14. Facebook and (Repeated) Privacy Breaches
You can’t be a company that prioritizes privacy and data protection and have a cancel culture roundup that doesn’t feature Facebook. Whether you want to call them Meta or Facebook, the social media behemoth has routinely found itself at the center of controversy over the way it handles user data.
More recent dramas such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal during the 2016 presidential election cycle are still fresh in everyone’s minds. But in 2019, a separate entity blew the whistle on yet another data breach at Facebook. Third-party apps that were linked with Facebook had exposed millions of user data on the internet. The social giant found itself slapped with a $5 billion fine by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and had its net worth drop by $37 billion.
Did Facebook really get canceled because of this? No. Would villainizing Facebook for the way it handles consumer data be considered “woke-ism” going too far? Again, no. However, it did once again highlight why privacy laws matter and why businesses have a responsibility to be careful with consumer data.
15. Dove Changes One Too Many Shirts
For the most part, Dove is as vanilla of a brand as you can get in the U.S. This sensitive skin-safe brand is all about keeping your body hydrated and protected. Likewise, Dove is firmly behind The Crown Act to aid in ending racially driven discrimination based on the way a person wears their hair.
However, even a brand as do-gooder as Dove can step into it from time to time. In 2017, the brand released a digital commercial for social media to promote its body wash. In the short clip, people are seen changing their shirts and morphing into different people. In a three-second clip that will haunt the editor for the rest of their lives, a visibly darker-skinned Black woman takes off her shirt and is immediately replaced by a white woman who’s also removing the same color shirt as the Black woman.
In news that shocks no one, this didn’t go over well and the brand was slapped with accusations of racism. If the outrage went over your head, consider that the ad was for a body wash that was meant to cleanse your skin of dirt. And the ad shows a dark-skinned person transforming or cleansing themselves to become a white person.
Of course, the clip was pulled and apologies were issued, but it’s safe to assume that Dove doesn’t want to take a trip down the 2017 memory lane any time soon.
16. Is it Really Wonderful?
More than likely, you’ve probably seen a Wonderful Company commercial. From Fiji Water to Pom Wonderful, Wonderful Pistachios, and more, this company is the backer for some of the most popular trending food brands. Based in California, the company produces pistachios, pomegranates, almonds, grapefruit, and naval oranges. So, what’s the problem?
Many of the company’s farms are located in areas that are struggling with water scarcity. While people who live in the areas scrounge to find sufficient drinking water, Wonderful’s farms continue to use water with abandoned — even during notorious California drought seasons.
The company is owned by a power couple — Lynda and Stewart Resnick — who leveraged controversial political backroom dealings to negotiate water rights and maneuver around state water regulations to siphon water and keep their farms thriving even during low water times. As of 2016, the Resnik’s agricultural empire has been reported to use more water than all Los Angeles residents combined.
To date, there’s a growing backlash with many people refusing to purchase Wonderful Company products. This is because many low-income individuals who live near and work in the Wonderful Company’s farms have to pay to have water shipped in since they can’t access the water that naturally flows through the land.
17. Bud Light's Partnership With Dylan Mulvaney
Iconic beer brand Bud Light has taken a beating recently after consumers vehemently protested its decision to partner with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney. A slew of social media posts, including one from musician Kid Rock, show folks refusing to consume the beverage or tossing it in the garbage. Anheuser-Busch, the parent company of Bud Light, had to cancel a scheduled event after fears that its employees might be targeted. The controversy has had a knock-off impact on the company's stock, too, with its price declining by 3% after the news first broke.
18. Jonah Hill's Texts to His Ex-Girlfriend
Superbad actor Jonah Hill was accused by his ex-girlfriend Sarah Brady of a slew of misogynistic text messages and emotional gaslighting. The surfer and model shared screenshots of Hill's messages on her Instagram page which allegedly asked Brady to "respect his boundaries" and to stop participating in surfing contests. Hill has not commented on the posts so far but has attracted plenty of criticism for his aggressive messages.
What to do if your brand is "Canceled"
If you find your brand at the heart of a "cancel culture" type campaign, you need to turn to a crisis PR strategy. Transparency and humility are your best hope for survival regarding the messaging you put out in response.
Address the accusations head-on. If you feel that you have misstepped and that an apology is appropriate, make it honest and unequivocal. Couple this apology with some tangible change or action. It's imperative that this isn't seen as a token gesture, put out to appease the baying mob. A single advertisement campaign centered around the issue will only make matters worse if it's followed by more problematic content that lapses back into the behaviours you've been called out for.
Show how you're making bigger, more systemic or operational changes to ensure the wrong is righted (and more importantly, that it won't happen again.) You don't need to see cancellation as the end of your brand, but you should take it as a wake-up call.
How to avoid your brand being canceled
The good news is the chances of your brand "being cancelled" are reducing. Cancel culture sparked by moral outrage is starting to fall out of favour. People would rather see a brand acknowledge its failings and put things right. Lessons learnt, it would seem, are more valuable than the message that a brand is instantly going out of business.
However, there are other ways that a brand can fall foul of their audience, and you may find the public to be much less forgiving or flexible in their reaction in these cases.
When it comes to the administrative responsibilities that a brand is perceived to hold, things are usually much more clear-cut. Let customers down by failing to protect them from an issue that was entirely predictable and preventable, and you'll have a very thorny problem on your hands.
Issues arising from mishandling data related to payments or personal information are a cardinal sin to the modern-day consumer. Get this wrong, and retribution can be swift, with the message of mistrust spreading rapidly.
To avoid problems arising around data privacy (and build the trust your audience feels in your brand from the outset), a clear, transparent data policy is the best course of action. Taking this preemptive measure to put the power of privacy into your customers' hands means more transparency and a significantly reduced risk of accusations arising or snowballing into something bigger.
Enzuzo's data privacy platform automatically keeps your brand compliant with all new legislation and enables you to manage all of your GDPR and CCPA data subject access requests from one simple dashboard – leaving you plenty of time to make sure your latest advertising campaign is going to be right on the money when it comes to gauging the public's ever-evolving sensibilities!
Osman is the content lead at Enzuzo. He has a background in data privacy management via a two-year role at ExpressVPN and extensive freelance work with cybersecurity and blockchain companies. Osman also holds an MBA from the Toronto Metropolitan University.