On June 24, 2020, the New York Magazine covered the story of Sue Chafer, a graphic designer and a former employee at The Washington Post, who got fired from her job for attending a Halloween party in 2018 in blackface. Chafer repeatedly apologized and acknowledged that she had made a grave mistake after being confronted.
The Washington Post not only fired her but also published a 3000-word article on the incident two years later amidst a period when the protests for racism against black people in America were on the rise – perhaps merely to publish something eye-catching, relevant, and controversial.
This action subjected Chafer to a violent blitz of destructive criticism and death threats on social media platforms. The New York magazine picked up this story essentially to condemn Post’s attempts to “cancel” an employee in both legal and social terms (in pursuit of its gains) even after she had apologized for her mistake. It also initiated discourse on how woke capitalist structures can exploit and escalate the already massive spread of cancel culture to secure possible economic incentives.
Woke capitalism refers to the profit-driven approach towards social movements adopted by corporations to maximize their consumer appeal and benefits. The advocates of cancel culture argue that it is a tool for making big companies accountable for their wrong actions and driving social and economic radicalism. However, a comprehensive analysis of how woke capitalism institutes it as a force for gaining media appreciation suggests otherwise.
Cancel culture’s toxic and unforgiving approach towards eliminating social evils provides easy access for brands to fire employees for instant acceptance without adopting policies that bring structural changes. The Atlantic published an article regarding this concern, predicting that in the future, “brands will gravitate toward low-cost, high-noise signals as a substitute for genuine reform, to ensure their survival.”
Rise in Consumer Consciousness and Woke Washing
In recent years, two significant trends have directly resulted in shifting economic incentives for companies: the rise in social media usage and brands advertising themselves online. In addition, consumers are now more critical of the companies’ sociopolitical stances from whom they are buying products. Such emergence of consumer consciousness promotes an inclusive market with progressive values.
However, it also enables the brands to cash on the social movements to maximize consumer appeal, which secures them huge profits. Owen Jones called this practice “woke-washing” in an article explaining it as “profit-driven companies cynically cashing in on people’s idealism and using progressive-orientated marketing campaigns to deflect questions about their own ethical records.”
Satisfying the “Woke Police”
Companies publicly “canceling” their employees deemed problematic by the “woke police” to attract customers is a crucial example in this case. The firing of Emmanuel Cafferty, a San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) employee, over a viral Twitter video of him making the OK hand sign (also used as the white-power gesture in the past) is one of the many instances that validate this argument.
The truck driver received extreme hatred on the social platform, which prompted SDG&E to dismiss him on the grounds of a racist allegation without any investigation, merely to please the public. Cafferty, who claimed to be unaware of the history of the hand gesture, said, “what am I supposed to learn from this? It is like I was struck by lightning.”
Woke capitalism functions on the principle that a brand maximizes its profits by adhering to progressive values and spreading awareness on public interest issues. In pursuit of economic gains, sometimes, these issues might be viewed solely as a commercial tool to advertise products and increase consumer appeal, which “inevitably leads to the discomfort of capitalizing on the sentiments of people who have actual stakes in these issues.”
As cancel culture is increasingly becoming a “progressive” trend among social media activists, brands are beginning to exploit it as an opportunity to acquire public acceptance and applaud. It is often pursued by mindlessly firing employees deemed problematic on media platforms like Chafer and Cafferty to satisfy the “woke” public.
This practice has become a shortcut for companies to ward off criticism on problematic approaches towards social issues, and simultaneously gain economic profits by receiving PR points and attracting consumers at the expense of an individual’s public humiliation.
Appealing Consumers through Performative Activism
One crucial question to be addressed here is: Does the threat of cancel culture realistically bring any social and economic reforms in brands’ policies? The answer is yes, and no. It encourages (surface-level) social rectification but fails to bring any valuable changes through economic reforms. These include giving paid maternity leaves, ending wage gaps, and inclusivity in hiring practices, to name a few.
For example, Nike and Burger King gained staggering profits by advertising against gender discrimination in workplaces and spreading awareness about mental health issues, respectively. Nike’s Dream Crazier campaign showed Serena Williams, an acclaimed professional tennis player, addressing the gender inequality against women in sports.
In an advertisement, she voices that “If we show emotion, we are called dramatic. If we want to play against men, we are nuts. And if we dream of equal opportunity, delusional.” Later, a Nike-sponsored runner revealed that she was not provided paid-maternity leave by the company, exposing the hypocrisy of the brand.
Similarly, while Burger King has launched its #FeelYourWay campaign to direct attention towards Mental Health Awareness month by introducing color-coordinated meals for different emotions, its employees are not able to afford mental health care on their poverty wages.
The instances discussed above do initiate debates on stigmatized topics and help bring awareness to social causes. However, when brands do not institute the changes they advertise in their own policies, their campaigns significantly end up benefitting the already wealthy owners and shareholders of the concerned businesses. In contrast, the trickle-down of profits to the workers is of a low percentage.
The employees also face a heightened risk of job security as they are not given a second chance in most work environments. Therefore, brands take part in cancel culture and adhere to performative activism (activism stemming from a pursuit to increase social capital, instead of devoting to eliminate a social issue) for increased revenues but fail to bring structural reforms through this movement.