By Sarah Madison Repollo | November 17, 2023
A “PR Nightmare” is what some have tagged McDonald’s most recent controversy as.
Last October, the fast food chain was discovered to have been providing meals for Israel’s defense forces. Aside from McDonalds, countless brands received heavy criticism over their stance throughout the Gaza genocide. With several household names like Starbucks, Disney, and Nestle among others indirectly supporting the killings, boycotting and cancel culture have become a huge topic of conversation once again.
But what impact can these two actions really have on pervasive social ills perpetuated by powerful actors? And does knowing the difference actually matter? Answering these questions may all boil down to one simple fact: Conviction used right can achieve more than it seems to at first glance.
What is boycotting?
Boycotting refers to the refusal to purchase from companies or participate in activities that go against your moral standards. This is primarily done in the hopes of change occurring within a corporation or individual, especially as the focus is on accountability over shaming.
The concept of boycotting began a while back, but it made one of its first-ever major marks in the 1950s. With racial segregation more prevalent than ever at the time, “The Montgomery Bus Boycott” began. Through this, African Americans refused to ride city buses in Alabama to protest the segregated seating.
In the end, the company that controlled the area’s bus network suffered great financial losses, while the movement itself positively impacted the lives of many people, especially since it effectively assisted in eliminating transportation barriers for people of color. While the bus company was not phased out, change was made because of the boycott.
Boycotting is in no way a novel concept, but in recent years, a more intense form of protest stemming from it called “cancel culture” has weaved its way into society.
What does it mean to cancel?
Scrolling through social media platforms like Twitter, now called X, you’re bound to stumble across a post participating in cancel culture one way or another.
To “cancel” means to completely reject a person or a body, almost advocating for the erasure of their existence. This is a form of punishment done in response to offensive remarks or actions typically made by powerful people and large corporations, although not limited to big names.
Once, a YouTuber who goes by the name of Miranda Sings was canceled due to pedophilic behavior, among other issues she had. The internet was dead set on removing her completely, and it has been more than four months since she has been heard from.
A more familiar instance of cancellation is the online discourse on JK Rowling. The Harry Potter series author tweeted in 2020 her opinion on an op-ed piece that tackled global menstrual health. She had an issue with the fact that the article chose to use the term “people who menstruate” over the more conventional “women.”
Rowling said, “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” The backlash that followed was so intense that even actors and actresses who portrayed her novel’s characters spoke out against the author.
More than three years later, the internet remains divided on what to think of Rowling. While she has earned many critics, a good number of millennials still hold her in high regard because of the magic her book series has left in their lives. This is where the debate of “separating the art from the artist” comes into play—not everyone who gets canceled is wiped off the face of the earth.
But at its root all the same, canceling seeks destruction and is primarily fueled by emotions—especially anger.
In the age of social media, everyone knows who and when someone or something is canceled. To powerful corporations or even individuals, a PR team has become more important now than ever before.
PR—meaning public relations—refers to how a person or group is portrayed to society. In turn, a PR team is responsible for curating a positive image for them, making this the main counter against cancel and boycott attempts. By analyzing target audiences and following the trends, these teams do their best to clean up messes or prevent them from happening in the first place.
In the case that brands or people survive boycotting or canceling, they tend to step back for a bit, assess the damage, and formulate plans from there. Once they know what they’re dealing with, the general public is addressed, transparency and empathy are emphasized, and a blanket of caution for the future falls over the group or person recently involved in controversy.
Through this, the reputation crisis is made into a relic of the past, bit by bit.
As time passes by, with forgiveness and a little bit of forgetfulness, powerful people will eventually have the opportunity to do controversial things silently all over again, right under everyone’s noses. Although the internet may not forget, people have the tendency to.
What can consumers do?
With the Gaza situation creeping up on society, it begs the question as to how people can help from across the globe. Should they take it to the internet, letting netizens fight the battle? Or should brands in Israel’s favor be hunted down and boycotted completely? Which method proves more effective and long-lasting? Which will not be forgotten?
Large-scale boycotting directly impacts company policies, making it an ideal solution. However, the power of canceling cannot be discounted. Cancel culture is typically viewed in a bad light by many, but it generates conversations and gives a voice to those without. The combination of both strategies creates the perfect weapon for ordinary citizens against powerful people.
In addition to the cancel-boycott duo, an alternative solution exists in the form of buycotting. To “buycott” is to support brands that align with a person’s moral standards. One example of this is seen in the TikTok tag “krispy kreme supports palestine” that has garnered over 103.8 million views as of this time. In the majority of videos, users urge viewers to redirect their spending towards brands that support a good cause. In contrast to the negative connotations that surround boycotting and cancel culture as a whole, buycotting highlights the good left in a harsh world.
Ordinary citizens have very little to work with when it comes to battling world issues—after all, money and power are often needed to move mountains, something that most ordinary citizens do not possess. But surprisingly, “cancel culture” in moderation can be the voice needed to address society’s problems. Even without the same reach that companies hold, individuals—bound together and rooting for the same cause—can become the very catalyst needed to enact change.