Whatever side of the debate you are on, there’s really no ignoring cancel culture, such is the prevalence it has gained over the past three or so years, writes Atomic 212° client lead Emma Macey.

Few words incite such a range of negative emotions – disgust, anger and more than a little fear among them – as ‘cancel culture’.

Since 2019, this alliterative pair have stoked both ends of the political spectrum, with backers saying it gives those on the margins of society a chance to make their voices heard and finally end some ignorant and ill-conceived ideas people have about them, while at the other end it’s shorthand for ‘political correctness gone mad’.

Whatever side of the debate you are on, there’s really no ignoring cancel culture, such is the prevalence it has gained over the past three or so years.

And brands are feeling the pinch.

Infamous examples from home and abroad
The most famous and obvious example was, of course, Pepsi’s infamous ad in which they tried to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement by putting Kendall Jenner at the front.

The soft-drink giant was slammed over their tone-deaf attempt to leverage literal life-and-death activism into a few more bottles of soda sold, and they pulled the ad almost immediately, saying in a statement, “Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.”

More recently, and far closer to home, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet received plenty of heat after they unveiled a new logo for the Women’s Network that looked more than a little phallic.

The National Older Women’s Network Australia tweeted they “thought this was satire, but it is either thoughtless or an insult”.

The department acted swiftly to take down the new logo, while seeking to distance themselves and the PM himself from it.

“The rebrand was completed internally, using existing resources, and designs were consulted on widely. No external providers were engaged for this work,” the department said in a statement.

“The prime minister and the prime minister’s office were not part of this logo design.”

It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just bad marketing
While both have been painted with the brush of being examples of cancel culture, in reality they’re just bad marketing.

Speak to your target audience is Marketing 101 stuff, yet in both these examples the clearest-cut audience to be seeking to engage isn’t going to respond.

The outcry that resulted in both the ad and the logo getting pulled may have been seen as examples of cancel culture, but within our industry, we really should be following it up with serious questions about the process undertaken before these outcomes – a white woman at the front of the Black Lives Matter movement, and a penis to represent a women’s network – were considered even remotely workable.

Seriously, who was consulted? What was the level of research and how many people who would potentially be part of the target audience were engaged?

Because logic suggests it was a low-effort play on both parts and that’s how these brands ended up in trouble.

It wasn’t cancel culture that stung them, it was lazy marketing.

Accountability is a good thing
Cancel culture may cause some people and certain industries to wake up at night in cold sweat because their day or reckoning is at hand.

But in marketing, we should see the opportunity this level of community accountability presents.

It’s no longer good enough for five white men to be the only voices in a room for a product aimed at women or people of colour. It’s not that they can’t have a say, just that they can’t have the only say. Because how worthwhile is their opinion going to be compared to that of someone with the lived experience the given product is speaking to?

This isn’t just a feel-good exercise either – for years now, studies have shown that a broad cross-section of genders and cultures results in better outcomes.

In their 2019 report ‘The Business Case for More Diversity’, the Wall Street Journal’s business analysts reached the conclusion, “Diverse and inclusive cultures are providing companies with a competitive edge over their peers.”

The numbers the WSJ put forward made for some compelling reading: “The 20 most diverse companies in the WSJ study had an average annual stock return of 10% over five years, versus 4.2% for the 20 least-diverse companies.”

Take an informed risk
Cancel culture may make it hard for brands to invest in talent and influencers because of the risk involved, particularly since it’s not a brand’s responsibility to predict what will be cancelled.

But it is incumbent on marketers and our clients to understand the environment we’re in – one in which you can still take a risk, but it has to be an informed risk.

What group of people are you including in a brand campaign or the creation of a logo etc. Who’s saying “yes” to your ideas? More importantly, who’s saying “no”?

By encouraging diversity in our industry, we can still take risks, but if you’re aligning your work with specific people, you need to be aware of the sensitivities involved.

Which, again, isn’t political correctness gone mad – it’s common sense. You’re not going to sell much of anything if your target audience find your marketing to be condescending, tone deaf or offensive.

We can still create great work in this environment. In fact, we should make better work.

Cancel culture isn’t going to be the death of our industry – rather, it could be a hit of creativity that leads to a golden age, one that has long laid dormant simply because we weren’t asking the right people the right questions.

Article originally published on Mumbrella.