Marketing podcast: Casualty of cancel culture?

Last year, Singaporean influencer Wendy Cheng, also popularly known as Xiaxue, was thrusted into the spotlight for comments she made in 2010 concerning migrant workers. Her tweets published in 2019 surrounding the transgender community have also resurfaced after she posted on Instagram Stories that politican Raeesah Khan of the Workers' Party should "stop trying to divide the nation with [her] race politics".

Shortly after, a Google document comprising a list of brands that has worked with Cheng since January 2019 surfaced. Netizens then took it upon themselves to contact the brands and have them hold Cheng "accountable" and "reconsider" future partnerships with her. Online video network Clicknetwork TV also dropped Cheng as a host for its show The Public Investigator, explaining that it has always supported a diversity of opinions, voices, and open debate.

The incident has also led Cheng to turn her blog and Twitter account private while at the same time filed a lawsuit against the "mob". However in a turn of events, the creator behind the Google, Elouise Quek, issued an apology last November. Quek also retracted all her previous allegations and statements, admitting that some of it were untrue because they were taken out of context.

Nearly a year after the online furore, Cheng tells MARKETING-INTERACTIVE if things have returned to pre-cancel culture days and how she managed relationships with brands during the rough patch.

Listen to the episode here.

(Read also: Interview: Xiaxue responds as netizens pressure brands to ‘reconsider’ engagement)

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Some time has passed since the incident. Where are you on the matter now? Have things gone back to the pre-cancel culture days?

Cheng: I’m okay. I’m no stranger to controversy and sometimes I lament the fact that I can't just be one of those influencers who only care about make up and hair and not have any opinions. Then I wouldn’t get into trouble. But sometimes I can’t help it, I feel I have something strongly to say and I say it. I guess I cannot regret it either because that’s kind of got me to where I am today, and I think the beauty aspect of being an influencer is just one small part of my career.

With how cancel culture is pervasive in the US, opinions have been very stifled and you do see cancel culture happening a lot more there. So I am quite surprised that I managed to last this long until there are more dire consequences. I’m grateful to still be here and as for the brands, I do see them coming back a bit. My manager’s very positive about this, she says they will come back and let’s hope they will.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Have things started normalising or are you still in that state of limbo where you’re double guessing yourself, whether you should say something and whether it will matter 10 years later?

Cheng: I think all influencers would think before putting something out. I locked [my Twitter] because of the lawsuit that was going on with [Elouise Quek]. But now that the lawsuit is over, I still enjoy having it locked because I’m so comfortable with the fact that everyone who is still on here and has followed me, they are people who like me. Those who don’t like me wouldn’t have followed me before I locked [my account]. So it just feels very comfortable to live in that little bubble. Being able to follow me on Twitter now is a very rare commodity because I don’t allow it, so only the old followers are still there.

No, it’s not gone back to the pre-cancel culture days but I think it is a little difficult to divide, like what is because of cancel culture and what is because of COVID-19? After COVID-19 occurred and even before being cancelled, the ads have dropped significantly, almost like 90%. And of course, a lot of this influencer life is also about going to events such as make up and beauty events where there are lots of people.

The events industry is more or less dead now so even if they do have events, they have five people. I do see some of it returning, some clients are still inviting me to events. I still get press kits from some of the brands that I had expected would stop. So more or less yes, they are coming back and I am getting some ads back as well.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: When we were speaking to you when the whole saga was happening, you sounded really sad about the situation and it’s not a side of you that we see very publicly. You’ve always been very rational, very straightforward. But this is not a side of you that we see very often, why is that?

Cheng: I don’t like to show people that I get sad because I think it gives them a lot of pleasure to know that their campaign against me has worked and that I’m upset by what they did. So I think it’s this ugly side of humans, you feel good about making someone else feel bad and I think it’s especially prevalent when it comes to influencers because we always seem so lucky in a way. People will think we don’t deserve what we have, and I don’t wish to see that.

As for being sad, it’s not so much of being said. I too know that one day this will come because you can tell just by looking at the trends overseas. People who have been in the scene very long, they do have a lot of their old stuff dug up. For example, Jenna Marbles, Shane Dawson or Jeffree Star.

I knew that one day it will come because we keep pushing the needle on what is acceptable content nowadays and in the past, people just say things a lot more casually without thinking.

So is it true that all these people nowadays, who you see are so pure in mind, aren't thinking about anything offensive? Or is it because they know that they can’t say these things? That’s the difference I guess. People in the past could say these things and get away with it and so you get this more authentic side of people. But right now, everyone has the fear of being cancelled so they just don’t say anything. So we don’t know if they are truly so inoffensive or is it because they are just smarter about how they do things.

I guess some of the sadness was more of seeing my clients being harassed and they are put in a tough spot. It was very saddening to see that, especially for clients who are working for big American companies. A lot of the make up brands are American and I think Americans react a lot more strongly to controversies such as this because they are so much more “woke” in that sense.

Sometimes my clients, the PR agency or the brand representative in Singapore are getting scolded because what’s acceptable in Singapore may not be in America. So the American counterparts are going to say: “Why didn’t you do your job vetting this person?” And I feel bad about that.

It’s also quite sad that the scene in Singapore is turning into a very sterile place because it’s very detrimental to society.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: A lot of your clients were actually supporting you but they had to publicly distance themselves because the backlash was also impacting their business. Did you try to negotiate with them in any way or try giving advice?

Cheng: Yes, some clients were pretty nice. They contacted me and said: “You know I love and support you but right now, I have to do what my US boss says.” and I totally understand. I don’t blame them at all because if I had a business to protect, I would too. And most people are not so social media savvy. Sometimes my manager and I will try to fight the fires by telling them: "If you ignore this it will go away.", which is true. Nowadays, nobody talks about old controversies anymore. Once they are over, they are done with.

Consumers say they will boycott your brand but they were not customers in the first place so you don’t really need to care about  these threats. They can’t really do much and they stop being angry after awhile. But I feel that a lot of them need to protect their business and I don’t blame them.

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