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  • Writer's pictureJames Cullen

'Cancel Culture' Doesn't Influence Companies - Profits Do!

There is a lot (a lot!) of debate about 'cancel culture' and its impact on businesses. But one thing is often overlooked. In a capitalist society, the most power a consumer has it where they spend their money. Cancel culture - often misconstrued in the press as someone in the public eye being asked to account for their actions, usually with consequences attached - has almost no bearing on what a company does. But things that might influence consumers and therefore profit do.

The Washington Redskins American football team are contemplating changing their name. This doesn't come at the hands of pressure about its racist connotations, nor does it come from the idea that a major league team may be 'cancelled'. It comes from the team's balance book. Their primary sponsor, FedEx, have suggested they look into changing their name (which is corporate partnership speak for: do it or we walk) and Target and Walmart have announced they will stop selling Redskins merchandise. The team owner made it clear in 2013 he didn't care about the connotations and would never change the name - but he may rethink once his profits begin to be affected.

In the UK, estate agent Wetherell in Mayfair have suggested they may rename the 'master bedroom' on their listings to 'primary bedroom'. This doesn't come from a campaign of social justice, but from a logical idea that the generation who do care about the words used are coming up to renting and buying houses. Would people not buy because the master bedroom was called the primary bedroom? No. There will be no negative impact to change the name, and it may actually have a positive one further down the line.

'Cancelled' companies aren't being cancelled (which is a term invented by millennial/zoomer social media to show displeasure with a celebrity that would usually be hero worshipped). Consumers are choosing where they spend their money. A company doesn't have a right to have people purchase from them and they are not charities that can tug on emotions to get us spending. If a company annoys its audience, they are within their consumer rights to go elsewhere. If actions that may get companies 'cancelled' had no potential for lost sales, the companies would be highly unlikely to ever change their actions.

Take Bath and Bodyworks in America. A now-sacked employee used an expletive to describe President Donald Trump after being subjected to racial abuse (not dissimilar to what Trump may have said himself). Consumers suggested online that they would shop elsewhere. Many sympathetic to the President accused the 'leftists' of 'cancelling' their company. They weren't. They simply decided that a decision made by the company no longer reflected their beliefs and decided to stop spending money there.

The same for Goya beans, whose company president praised Trump, leading to Trump detractors announcing their would buy beans elsewhere. In the same way that an employee might face repercussions for their actions, businesses need to learn that they are not untouchable and that they are at the mercy and whim of consumers - something that seems lost on some of them.

Back in the UK, supposedly 'cancelled' author JK Rowling has two books coming out later in the year. Elsewhere, David Starkey has been dropped by his publisher. Potter fans may have lost respect for Rowling's bizarre rants against marginalised communities, but Starkey became a liability for his publisher with his overtly racist comments. The publisher couldn't risk producing a book that would be bought by nobody. If you worked at Tesco and you said those comments publicly, you wouldn't be clocking in the next day!

What online critics need to understand is that businesses don't care about negative online attention or supposed boycotts. They don't. Pressure from a baying mob won't impact a business's decisions - unless their finances will be impacted. In a capitalist market of supply and demand, if consumers demand something in droves, good businesses will supply it. A lot of decisions blamed on 'cancel culture' are actually based on good business sense, long-term planning, and responding to market trends. Much like many don't care about being environmentally-friendly or being pro-mental health. Many of them just do so because it would be costlier not to.

2019 saw a huge campaign across industry for better mental health provisions, but a lot of companies didn't actually do anything to back up their platitudes. Indeed, mental health and looking out for your well-being became a trend to add to corporate social responsibility. Whether or not the company genuinely believed in what it said (and backed it up with action) was irrelevant because to not do so may negatively impact profits. The amount a company might spend on implementing some of the measures would be offset in positive PR and general good feeling about the company. In a saturated market, the company that does better for its employees might clinch the sale.

Cancel culture is not some McCarthyism-era witch hunt that should make companies fear for their livelihoods - they should be proactive and respond to the changing consumer base in order to ensure the consumers don't decide to spend money somewhere else that better reflects their views. In other words, cancel culture is the modern way of suggesting consumers are voting with their feet. The companies aren't swayed by a tide of political correctness that means 'we can't say anything' but are doing as any good business owner knows and adapting for the changing values and attitudes of their public.

Those businesses that don't adapt, and lose custom, cannot then blame a swathe of somehow extremely influential online 'cancellers'. Every consumer has their own mind - they don't behave like a trading bloc. Businesses should re-evaluate how they treat their customers. Every sale, every spend should be received with gratitude. The customer doesn't have to shop with you - and as we may see in the coming months, unless you actively appeal to them, many of them won't.

Cancel culture does not exist. People and companies are learning that they have no right to demand attention and custom, they should earn it. If they don't adapt to their consumer, their consumer will go elsewhere. What is often termed 'cancel culture' is actually one of the best examples of how capitalism works - consumers have choice and that's how the free market remains stable.

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