The New Power Dynamic

The act of ‘cancelling our faves’ stretches back to such instances as the Abercrombie and Fitch fiasco of 2013, where then CEO, Michael Jeffries, spoke of the company’s exclusionary nature in a 2006 Salon interview. Rather than adapt to the hypodermic needle theory, where consumers were willingly fed products and services through a needle, consumers, and stans alike, fought back. This reclamation of consumer power has most notably been seen with the Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad, the cancelling of Kim Kardashian, the critiquing of Lady Gaga and Cardi B, and is the result of the Grammy Awards pushing for more diversity. For a generation who has awakened to such power, the rule of cancellation is not applied evenly to all, but is more selective and intrinsic than one might think. 

The steps to cancellation are quite simple. Company or brand says something deemed problematic. Its problematic nature is tied to being exclusionary, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and/or harmful to a select, or specific group of people, or an individual. The brand or company’s followers and onlookers, join in conversation about the problematic act. The brand or company gets cancelled, ignored, and loses support. Finally, the brand or company issues a statement of regret that is either accepted or ignored. The cancelling grows even more intense if the brand or company does something problematic that is tied to their support base. These steps can be slightly altered but its foundation is one of critique and reclamation of narrative and power. Consumers have grown awake to the fact that the number one harm you can do to any brand or company is tied to money. Power structures are founded on it. To ensure consumers are heard, they know to make a dent in the pockets of those within the chain of supply and demand. Companies and brands, big and small, cannot often afford such a dent as it can ruin, and/or taint, ones image. Just ask Shea Moisture and Jackie Aina.

Aina sits as one of the well-known Youtube make-up artists, with over a million subscribers on her channel and even more influence within the world of glamour. In early August, Twitter took up arms against the guru after she hosted makeup artist, Patrick Starr, at her 30th birthday party. A party with the influence of Nigerian culture. Starr had attended dressed in what he deemed, a “Solange inspired,” look, wearing an afro wig. It is not the first time Starr has worn the similar wig. In early May, Starr posted a selfie wearing it on Instagram, receiving some slight backlash. This time around it was Aina’s fans and followers who took to critiquing it. Many fans quoted cultural appropriation, with Aina either blocking some fans or simply silencing them. Though Aina did mention Starr wearing the wig to the party was “side eye worthy,” fans and followers were calling on her to be as upset over the issue of the wig, as she was over Marc Jacobs’s models wearing locs on the runway.

Erin McLaughlin, 20, a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, says she is no longer a fan of Aina’s due to the unbalanced nature of Aina’s activism. “When I saw Patrick wearing that wig I wasn’t shocked but I was still thoroughly annoyed, especially since it was revealed that Jackie gave him permission to wear it to her party,” says McLaughlin. For McLaughlin, Aina’s placement as an activist within the beauty industry and Youtube, as well as Aina’s understanding of what McLaughlin deemed “cultural insensitivity,” left McLaughlin confused by Aina’s “disingenuous” cosigning of Patrick Starr’s wig. As explained by McLaughlin, “There’s young black girls and black women being fired from their jobs, kicked out of school, and being bullied for their hair so I will never ever be okay with people using that as a costume.” This is not the first time McLaughlin has given Aina the side eye as she made note of Aina taking a public stance against such topics and issues as appropriation and anti-blackness, while still working with such individuals as the Kardashians and Starr himself – who works and poses with such controversial makeup artists as Jeffree Star. “It doesn’t add up to me and I can’t support someone who isn’t consistent with their beliefs and views. It comes off as her using activism for a come up, which isn’t unheard of at all.” Continues McLaughlin, “She deflected and made it seem like she did nothing wrong when she did. That’s corny and irresponsible for someone who claims to hate those who impersonate black women and profit off of our looks, cause this isn’t the first time Patrick has done this.” This new wave where consumers dictate the values of a company or brand, for the end result of profit, is one of power dynamics. It is a game of risk where companies and brands alike, can no longer risk insensitivity nor ignore cultural values for the end result of profit and support. In the 21st-century, such power dynamics have been altered.   

In the early 1900s, from 1914 to 1920, the United States government fuelled patriotism within the First World War through its use of propaganda. Stay with me this is not going to be a history lesson. Essentially, the United States used posters, speeches, and even movies, to tell its citizens why it was good that America was joining Europe in a war, with the U.S. siding against Germany. These posters had big talks of all the great reasons why the U.S. had to fight in the war both in Europe and in the U.S. as well. The multi-million dollar campaign was an incredible success and as we know, the allies – France, U.S., Britain, mostly – won the war. The propaganda conducted by the U.S. government in the past, might not be as successful today due to the shift in technology and communication – more control by consumers over both, and the shift in power dynamics. As Steven J. Alvarez, former military public affairs officer and author of “Selling War,” explains, “Our government in years past conducted domestic and international propaganda campaigns to sway opinions, attitudes, and behaviors and it was able to do it successfully because the information was controlled by a few.” Alvarez explains how “messages” passed on to the “masses” were passed through monitored channels. Channels that were much fewer than present currently, ensuring those messages passed on were heard and accepted. “Because the information was essentially flowing in one direction, to the target audience, and the audience itself was not interconnected, the messages saturated the target areas and were able to stick and sway populaces,” says Alvarez. This has changed. Now, we have the average person being critical of these messages and engaging in similar criticisms on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and more. Even better, these critiques are shareable and can be built upon by quote tweets and threads. These critiques can be sent directly to those you are criticizing for accountability. Whereas the channels were once few and controlled, the many channels today are more so made more transparent and struggle with less control over messages and communication, than before. This makes it easy for consumers to cancel those whose messages go against their values and beliefs.

In addition, the dynamics of who gets to cancel who, and who gets to be cancelled, is one directly linked with the reclamation of power. It is in itself a form of activism. Along with Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, climate change, animal rights, and more, people are engaging in acts of reclamation where the narrative and how the narrative is perceived, is framed by those marginalized and those experiencing worldly issues first hand. With this new found power being allotted to the consumers, big businesses and brands are pigeon holed into following these values, such as with Pepsi.

When Pepsi debuted its Pepsi/Kendall Jenner saving grace commercial, it received a heightened amount of backlash. So much so to write about it would bore you because you have seemingly read every hot take. Following said backlash, Pepsi removed the ad from its originally posted channels and issued a statement of regret. The statement said in part, “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding….Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.” This came following an outpour of critique, and at times disgust by some, after the seeing the ad. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., took to Twitter to say, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.” Shade and tea aside, it took less than a week for the voices of consumers to shift the values of a big name company such as Pepsi. Yet, even with this shift in narrative and the collective cancelling of Pepsi, the company made higher earnings.

Despite the calls for boycott following the Pepsi and Kendall Jenner ad, Pepsi’s revenue increased by 2% to $15.7 billion in the June 17 quarter. With USA Today reporting the Pepsi stock increasing 0.3%. This shows a wider picture of how sometimes, though calls for cancellation are made, they are either not followed through or are given a pass. A pass similar to that of Cardi B, Migos, and Kim Kardashian West.

If you have a problem with her it will most likely last, “foreva,” but the dragging of Cardi B barely lasted three days. The Bronx rapper was found to have been calling dark-skinned black women “roaches,” making light of sexual assault, while also objectifying, misnaming, and weaponizing the bodies and livelihood of people who are transgender. On the count of the black women, Cardi B posted a past video where she could be seen calling herself a “roach.” This in turn helped rectify her comments aimed at black women. At the time this was all unfolding, many called to cancel the new rapper, while others called to rather educate her. The entirety of which lasted a mere three days. This comparable to the utter cancellation of Azealia Banks. Another rapper who, in the past, has taken to Twitter to make transphobic, homophobic, and at times racist, remarks. A rapper who did not receive such a pass as Cardi B. In the same vein, Migos survived a short-lived fury from their fans following their homophobic and transphobic statements. When rap trio, Migos, denounced support for fellow Atlanta rapper, iLoveMakonnen, coming out as gay during an interview with the Rolling Stone, they were met with backlash and issued an apology. Further backlash came after Migos member, Quavo, stated he could not be homophobic because he had a song with Frank Ocean during a Billboard interview. Not long later, the trio were accused of being transphobic after Uproxx revealed they were not “comfortable” performing beside drag queens during their Saturday Night Live performance with Katy Perry. Through all of this controversy, Migos still remains a prominent and well supported name in the rap game with features on songs consistently rolling in. This selective cancelling nature extended to Kim Kardashian West, a business woman not shy of controversy, when her KKW Beauty Highlight and Contour kit launched. Fans and youtubers flocked to her side in support under the guise of a review. For a woman who has been continuously cancelled, more times than I could count – though there was a moment during her support for Black Lives Matter it was assumed her controversial nature would change – it was rather surprising to see her kits sell out. When West took to defend Jeffree Star following Star’s racist remarks, fans were again shocked into cancellation. This is all to say the ability to lose or gain support is flexible.

Consumers may very well have the power to support, to reclaim, and to cancel, but it does not mean it will always be used. One possible reason for this could be the exhaustion from the consistent need to always “take a stand,” rather choosing to simply enjoy what is presented on its surface. This could explain why some called to educate not cancel Cardi B. A song as catchy as “Bodak Yellow” that has brought so much joy to the internet, and a song from a woman rising up and creating a name for herself, some called rather to let her recently revealed behavior slide. It could be why some are still in adamant support of Migos. A trio of black men, providing fun and catchy rhymes to the culture of music. It could also be why some hope to hang on to Kim Kardashian. A woman who built up a brand from an environment of degradation simply due to her sexual past. A woman as problematic as she is but is still the wife of one of the honorary black men in music. There are varying reasons for the selective nature of cancellation but the main theme is that the decision, lies with the consumers.

Companies and brands still hold some element of power over the consumers. After all, the channels used to critique these companies and brands are not owned by the consumers themselves. The lack of financial and physical ownership consumers abide by, allow for the growth of power and reclamation through other means such as cancellations and calls for boycotts. The new power dynamic the current generation has been awakened to.

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