Watsons ‘blackface’ debacle is reminder of the power of social media
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Watsons ‘blackface’ debacle is reminder of the power of social media

AFTER the Watsons “blackface” debacle this week, businesses are once again reminded of the influence of social media and the immense authority of people power.

After Coconuts KL pointed out the uber offensive and racially charged Raya advert released by Malaysian pharmacy Watsons, social media backlash ensued. The article highlighting the faux-pas had views in the millions and saw netizens take to social media in a storm of disgust, often confusion, and condemnation directed at the unsuspecting chemist.

The 15-minute long advert showed a Malaysian folklore about a woman “cursed with black skin but born with a beautiful voice”, according to a statement released by the company following the video’s release.

In the star-studded epic, the marketing people behind the popular chain decided it would be a wise move to make up an actress in full blackface, which she then washes off to reveal a ‘true beauty’.

Watsons Malaysia, firmly – and bafflingly – under the belief that they had created an inclusive advert aimed at promoting inner beauty, did not feel the storm brewing. After debuting on Wednesday morning, the video was down and a pseudo-apology issued by that afternoon.

SEE ALSO: Malaysia: Popular pharmacy chain receives shade over ‘blackface’ advert

Consumer outrage was further amplified over their seemingly unapologetic apology and the company was eventually forced to capitulate and admonish itself in a public forum.

It took two attempts and the removal of the video for the company to find a genuine apology that resonated with people and made the public haranguing abate.

Watsons is, of course, not the first company to feel the wrath of clued up netizens. The first six-months of this year alone have been riddled with brands being brought down to size by discerning consumers – United Airlines and Pepsi stand out in the pack.

The blackface fiasco is another prime example of the immense power wielded by the consumer and their now very audible voice, brought to you courtesy of social media platforms.

The likes of Facebook and Twitter have undeniably been a source of massive reward and profit for the majority of companies. They now have unprecedented access to consumers, as well as knowledge of their likes, dislikes and deep-seated fears in life, but with this access also comes vastly increased risk.

For the first time in history, companies now have the ability to engage in two-way dialogue directly with their customers, or would-be customers – something the business world has emphatically capitalised on in recent years. But once that door to dialogue is opened, brands need to be prepared to engage with it, and it’s not always pretty.

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Not only the initial act itself, but any responses that fall short or don’t ring true with the public can have a lasting impact on your brand and ultimately your bottom line.

United Airlines stock reportedly dropped US$1.4 billion when a passenger was forcibly dragged off a flight back in April. In the same month, stocks for Snap – the owner of Snapchat – fell after the company faced criticism for comments allegedly made by its CEO about not prioritising growth in India and Spain because they were “poor” countries.

The tech-savvy, socially and politically conscious generation of today is willing and eager to voice their outrage and enforce their values through the authority of buying-power and public shaming of any brand that falls short of the mark.

The arena of social media can be a brutal one in which to battle, and the often merciless nature of netizens en masse can make it fraught with pitfalls.

The Watsons debacle, like others before them, is a reminder of the power of the people and social media to force big corporate to check itself.

While one senseless blackface, or one misguided co-opting of a protest movement, may land you in hot water, companies can take solace in the fact that, with a genuine and appropriate apology delivered in an authentic voice, the public can start to forgive – although they may never forget.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent