A long, long time ago in 1999, James Charles was born. And although no one could’ve predicted it at the time, he was destined for greatness.
In the two decades following his birth, Charles found massive success as a YouTube beauty guru. He achieved an estimated net worth of US $12 million and received 1.8 billion views on his channel. He attended red carpet events collaborated with the Kardashian/Jenner sisters. A young multi-millionaire with a massive following, James Charles was on top of the world.
Then, in May 2019, he set a YouTube record by losing over 1 million followers in less than 24 hours. After a few days, he’d lost 3 million.
The incident came about when fellow beauty guru and former friend Tati Westbrook took Charles to task in a scathing video titled “Bye Sister” that will live on in YouTube infamy. She accused him of unprofessional, immature and predatory behaviour. Following the video, the beauty community turned on Charles, and many celebrities he’d collaborated with unfollowed him on social media.
The drama made headlines across the internet. Fellow beauty gurus weighed in. Sides were taken. Pitchforks were raised. I heard about these people for the first time in my life because of it. So, you know it was a big deal.
What is cancel culture?
You can be forgiven for not realizing the significance of an online fight between a 20-year-old man and his 37-year-old mother figure. But for internet historians, it was a conflict for the books — not only was it one of the biggest “cancellings” of 2019, it became the defining case study for cancel culture.
The term “cancel culture” may not be one everyone is familiar with, but most people have seen it in action. It’s a phenomenon combining celebrity gossip, vigilantism and mass hysteria. If the internet was a medieval village, cancelling would be like when a mob gets together and accuses someone of practicing witchcraft. The James Charles incident was unique in its scale and impact, but it was only one of countless public outcries to cancel someone last year.
Being cancelled, summed up.
Social media has allowed people like James Charles to make lucrative careers for themselves, but it also comes with risks: the bigger your audience, the more closely you will be monitored under the internet’s microscope. Cancelling has become the internet’s call to arms — a deliberate attempt by the public to strip problematic figures of their power and influence. As a content creator or brand doing business online, that can have devastating consequences, both financially and personally.
Cancel culture might run its course in time, but for now, it’s still a thing. And from seeing cancellings playing out on social media on a weekly basis, I’ve come up with three rules for navigating the world of social networks as a brand or creator looking to build an audience.
1. Be careful weighing in on social or political issues
The reality of the internet in 2020 is that pushy marketing is out and authenticity is in. Taking a public stance on certain issues of the day can build trust between a brand and its audience. But when weighing in on an issue that doesn’t come from a genuine or personal place, the narrative can come across as pandering.
For example, remember Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign? If not, a recap: Starbucks decided to start a conversation on America’s race relations by having baristas write #RaceTogether on customers’ cups. Which sounds great, in theory… until you realize that only 15% of Starbucks’ upper management at the time were people of colour (which, concerningly, was still more than the percentage of PoC models used in the promo images).
People felt that Starbucks was suddenly concerned about racism for its own economic gain. The company received a ton of social media backlash. Fortunately, Starbucks took this mistake to heart and its more recent efforts at social change have been better received.
When it comes down to it, yes, Starbucks had a good message. But it didn’t line up with anything else they were doing at the time, so the campaign quickly shifted from an authentic effort to an opportunistic cash-grab. If your brand is thinking about tackling an important issue, make sure it fits with everything else you’re doing to make sure you’re sending the message you want to send.
2. Watch how you use humour
As someone who communicates almost exclusively in sarcasm and detached irony, I’m well aware of how easily humour can misfire — especially without non-verbal cues. Things like parody, sarcasm and satire become especially difficult to convey when it’s through text. Tone and body language, which would normally tell us how to interpret a statement, are completely absent.
The subject matter of humour can also raise ire in some instances. DiGiorno Pizza’s Twitter account caught flack when they appeared to make light of domestic abuse by seizing on the trending hashtag #WhyIStayed. Amid disturbing accounts of domestic violence from Twitter users, DiGiorno implied, intentionally or not, that someone would stay in an abusive relationship for the promise of pizza, a cheeky tweet that rubbed a lot of users the wrong way.
Sure, you can argue that dark humour has its place in the world. But as a brand, joking about sensitive topics — even with the best intentions — is likely to backfire.
3. Don’t rely on influencers to save you
Traditional marketing is changing, and audiences are putting more trust in influencers with similar values than brands themselves. If people have to be advertised to, they appreciate a sales pitch that feels more personally catered to them. But even the most carefully curated influencer strategy can’t protect you if you’re not honest about the product.
The iconic Fyre Festival disaster is the perfect example: with a brilliant influencer strategy, the world’s top influencers and the trip of a lifetime on offer, it should have been pretty hard to mess up. But they did. Big time. Like, two competing documentaries about the event big.
Fyre Festival left people questioning the role Instagram’s influencers played in the failed music festival and what responsibility they had to their audience. The controversy even led the Advertising Standards Authority to tighten their rules and regulations on influencers.
There are plenty of examples of influencers who failed to uphold their end of the bargain with their audiences by promoting inferior, shoddy or unethical products or experiences. Careless promotions can erode trust between an audience and their brand.
No matter how careful you are on social media, at the end of the day, marketing still comes down to what it always has: your product. If it’s not something worth selling, all the Instagram models in the world can’t make people buy it — or, at least, not without demanding a refund after they do.
At its core, cancelling probably has some good intentions. People don’t get cancelled for having bad hair or preferring pineapple on their pizza, but because they’ve done or said something problematic.
If you use common sense and keep it friendly, your brand should be able to navigate social media unscathed. And if you ever do make a mistake, use it as an opportunity to learn about your audience and better your brand for the future.