Clicknetwork drops Xiaxue: Cancel Culture or Social Justice?

3 Major Lessons Marketers should take away
xiaxue cancel culture
In late July, prominent local influencer Xiaxue was removed by the producer of her long-running YouTube show as the scheduled host for an upcoming video series. Clicknetwork TV had taken issue with a scathing series of Instagram stories she had posted two weeks earlier, during the lead-up to Singapore’s 2020 General Election, in which she accused the opposition’s candidate for Sengkang constituency, Raeesah Khan, of fanning racist sentiments and poisoning national politics. Xiaxue had denounced Ms Khan’s candidacy after learning that the social activist had criticised Singapore’s judiciary and law enforcement for allegedly discriminating against the country’s racial minorities. To her many fans and critics alike, Xiaxue’s reaction was not particularly astonishing: she had long been known for her stridently outspoken views on trending topics, and willingness to double down on contentious positions. But this time her denunciation of Ms Khan sparked a particularly ferocious backlash, which saw outraged netizens seek out and pressure businesses she had fronted marketing campaigns for to end relations with her. An online petition calling for Xiaxue to be punished for “seditious content” collected more than 27,800 signatures, while #punishxiaxue became a top trending hashtag on social media, reaching the number one spot on Twitter in Singapore. Xiaxue later admitted that the blowback she received this round was unlike anything she had previously experienced. What was the reason for this – is the rise of ‘cancel culture’ upon us? And, if so, what does this mean for the future of marketing?
Cancel Culture: The New Face of Consumer Activism
In an IGTV post following the incident, Xiaxue pinned the blame on a cultural shift in the way individuals, as consumers, react to businesses (and public figures) whose actions they find objectionable. Previously, consumer disapproval was limited mainly to personal boycotts – avoiding purchases of the offending company’s products – and the dissuasion of social contacts to do the same. But today, collective lobbying for the offending company’s business partners and sponsors to sever commercial ties – and deliver a more punitive financial blow – has become common. And it is the spread of this sharpened form of consumer activism that has given rise to the term ‘cancel culture’.
xiaxue cancel culture
Businesses thrive on relationships; being ‘cancelled’ can mean the loss of valuable partnerships

This article neither defends nor opposes such consumer action, but instead accepts it as part of the new reality that marketers must adapt to. Indeed, the rise of ‘cancel culture’ or ‘woke’ consumers is not unconnected from trends like the growing demand for environmentally sustainable products, and ethical manufacturing processes involving fairly paid workers rather than exploited child labour. They all reflect a broader trend towards morally engaged consumerism, insofar as the identification with certain moral standards avowedly drives such consumer behaviour. Whether one feels such actions and standards are misguided or enlightened is beside the point.

How then can brands thrive in this brave new world of the activist consumer? By closely examining key aspects of the Raeesah Khan-Xiaxue-Clicknetwork TV controversy and its aftermath, we can draw out 3 major lessons for marketers.

1) Authenticity vs Duplicity: The Importance of Being Earnest
Build trust with morally engaged consumers by working with talents who share your vision – not just the same target audience.
The first aspect of this saga which bears reflection is the strongly divided responses towards Clicknetwork’s move to drop Xiaxue from an upcoming production, as a rejection of the “divisive” manner in which she had delivered her opinions. While many netizens lauded the move, many others condemned it as hypocritical. A recurring view was that the production house had always been aware of Xiaxue’s brazenly opinionated comments online, and had engaged her in the first place because of rather than despite this. While it was unclear if netizens who decried Xiaxue’s dismissal necessarily agreed with the manner or substance of what she said, they clearly respected her for being authentic and speaking her mind. As such, they viewed Clicknetwork’s decision as an abandonment of the controversial influencer at the very moment her commercial value to them had turned into a liability. Conversely, netizens who supported Xiaxue’s removal viewed her characterisation of Ms Khan as a divisive racist to be gratingly self-righteous – given her own history of parading provocative statements on social media, which included painting an entire migrant ethnic group in Singapore as molesters and sexual predators. For many outraged netizens who had reached out to Xiaxue’s clients to ‘cancel’ her, the vocal influencer was simply being duplicitous.
xiaxue cancel culture
Who is the real Xiaxue – candid vlogger or opportunistic provocateur?
Thus, despite the opposing views towards Clicknetwork’s decision, common across them was a concern with consistency – whether in the way Clicknetwork ought to have stood by Xiaxue, having long profited from her loudmouth personality, or whether Xiaxue, having all but called for Ms Khan’s election candidacy to be withdrawn for raking up social division, should face similar consequences for acting in the very manner she was condemning. Accordingly, what can brands keen on building a reputation for being consistent and trustworthy do? For one, when engaging influencers and talents, it’s vital that brands go beyond scrutinising whether that personality’s following/appeal aligns with the kind of audiences they are targeting. Marketers need to have deeper discussions with talents to understand the values they cherish, and whether these values are consonant with their brand vision, prior to inking any contractual agreement. But even when such an alignment has succeeded, brands need to remember that every influencer they engage remains a freelance talent, who continues to build their appeal by expressing a variety of personal opinions that may invite controversy from time to time. As such, it is prudent that brands actively establish clear boundaries between the views they hold and the personal views held by their influencers, and communicate this distinction (or congruence) clearly when controversy arises, to safeguard consumer trust in the long term.
2) Marketing is the Stuff of Dreams and Better Tomorrows
Be empathetic to issues of social inequality and justice to connect with morally engaged consumers yearning for a fairer future.
The second aspect of this saga which bears reflection is what the target of Xiaxue’s criticism, Raeesah Khan, fundamentally represents. As a triple minority – an ethnically Malay woman and member of Singapore’s tiny political opposition – Ms Khan was the quintessential underdog. Moreover, two developments in the lead-up to polling day further cemented the sympathies she quickly attracted. The first development related to the way her two controversial Facebook posts, published way before the election season, were dug out of obscurity only days before campaigning was due to end. Screenshots were first exhibited in Facebook pages supporting the ruling party, complete with incriminating captions charging her of inciting social division along racial lines (a style=”text-decoration:underline;” criminal offence in Singapore). This gave Ms Khan little time to explain the context of her evidently reactive posts, and address these politically damaging characterisations. At the same time, outside cyberspace, police reports were lodged against Ms Khan. One day later, the police opened investigations against her for “an offence of promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race under Section 298A of the Penal Code”. This meant that Ms Khan now faced the prospect of disqualification from being a Member of Parliament, should she be convicted. Additionally, her position as the sole – and mandatory – minority race member of her party’s fielded team in Sengkang Group Representation Constituency (GRC) meant that her potential replacement was not likely to be easy. For many of Ms Khan’s sympathisers, there seemed to be a concerted attempt to undermine her party’s electoral chances in Sengkang.
Keeping a safe distance: GE2020 candidates for Sengkang GRC meet on the campaign trail
The second development related to the criminal offence she was investigated for. Ms Khan had levelled serious allegations about the partiality of Singapore’s criminal-justice system, after observing how people of different racial and religious backgrounds appeared to be treated in different ways. But she was initially investigated for inciting racial division, not scandalising the judiciary. Yet, Ms Khan’s posts had resonated with many of her supporters precisely because they spoke to their wider experience of racial inequality, privilege and discrimination in Singapore, despite the country’s much lauded harmony of races and religions. Given that the ruling party’s presumptive choice of next prime minister had alluded to much the same point, when he asserted that older Singaporeans were not ready for a minority race PM, sympathisers of Ms Khan saw her police investigation for being racially divisive as an attempt to silence critical comments about this uncomfortable facet of Singaporean society. Thus, when Xiaxue branded Ms Khan a “racist” and unfit for parliamentary service, much of the unusually large backlash that ensued can be boiled down to widespread perceptions that the influencer was attacking a victim of apparent political persecution, and effectively dismissing the broader societal issue of racial inequality that Ms Khan had recklessly given voice to.
xiaxue cancel culture
Cancelling the canceller?

Why is this relevant for marketing? Like politicians, marketers labour in the court of public opinion – and their success critically depends on their ability to appeal to people’s aspirations for a brighter future: the stuff of dreams and ideals. And in today’s age of activistic consumers, aspirations for greater social justice are increasingly taking centre stage, as social media and digital messaging technologies raise public awareness of historically marginalised and vulnerable groups.

Consequently, brands are facing rising consumer expectations to play a more visible role in nudging society towards a more egalitarian future. This makes it increasingly important for marketers to have a keen grasp on uncomfortable issues of inequality in society, in order to develop campaigns that demonstrate empathy towards these concerns – and help brands better connect with morally engaged consumers.

3) Stand for Something or Fall for Anything
Establish your brand’s position on hot button issues – as marketing becomes more personal, the time to remain agnostic is fast vanishing.

The third aspect of this saga which bears reflection is how previously fragmented criticisms of Xiaxue by netizens offended by her online statements had spontaneously coalesced – without the galvanising efforts of any central personality or interest group – into a decentralised movement to track down her financial sponsors and compel them to dissociate from her.

The speed at which public outrage towards Xiaxue had organically morphed into a pressure campaign for businesses to ‘cancel’ her carries major implications for brand safety. Specifically, the idea that brands can avoid getting embroiled in hot button issues by steering clear of them is becoming increasingly untenable – given how easily consumer action can be mobilised against businesses over statements even loosely connectable to their brand.

Additionally, as marketers work with a growing bevy of colourful influencers and personalities to make their campaigns more relatable to various target audiences, the risk of brands getting entangled with contentious social issues will unavoidably rise, rapidly diminishing the feasibility of brands having ‘no position’ on hot button topics.

xiaxue cancel culture
More consumers today expect brands to demonstrate empathy towards prevailing social inequities

This makes it imperative for brands to start preparing for their own ‘Xiaxue moment’, when they have to take a stand on socially divisive issues, even if it means offending certain parties. To do so, brands need to develop a clear picture of their brand identity and the values they uphold as a matter of first principles.

These values have to be specific – for example, is “freedom/honesty” or “fairness/equality” more fundamental? Only then can they act as a moral compass in helping brands arrive at difficult decisions on polarising issues, and win the support of their target market. Conversely, opting to tiptoe around festering issues with hollow platitudes will only lead to brands earning brickbats from multiple sides – and unwelcome perceptions of being an unprincipled or unsympathetic business.

Marketing in an Age of Social Judgment
Rather than bemoan the rise of a vindictive public that will take active steps to disrupt the business interests personalities and companies seen to be behaving in objectionable ways, marketers should pay attention to the rise of a more morally engaged public that is passionate about – and therefore receptive to – products and solutions that seek to ameliorate rather than exploit today’s social ills. (See, for example, the anti-discrimination message of Airbnb’s acclaimed #WeAccept video ad). To gain the ears of consumers yearning for a fairer future, brands need to conduct their businesses in a manner that is sensitive to prevailing injustices in society. Indeed, a July 2020 global research study by FleishmanHillard found that consumers today are very concerned with issues of social discrimination and equality, with 72% of respondents rating it as “very important” and 59% expecting companies to take a stand on them. Desires for greater social justice is driving greater social judgement of businesses that remain disengaged from such civic concerns. To thrive in this age of activistic consumers, brands need to move beyond narrowly appealing to individual aspirations and things that people want for themselves – and move towards socially conscious marketing that demonstrates an awareness of broader social inequities and a commitment not to be complicit in them.
Samuel Tan

About the author

Samuel Tan

Content Developer / Copywriter

I help brands communicate their unique value with clarity and impact, by crafting context-sensitive creative content for digital, print and social media, as part of through-the-line marketing campaigns.