“At my signal, unleash hell”: Why industry outrage is pointless without action
Social shaming and online outrage are this century's bloodsport. Fingers are pointed - sometimes erroneously - and behaviour is dissected but, argues Amy Kean, without action after the indignation then it's all pointless.
Wanna feel old? The film Gladiator was released 21 years ago. I just watched it for the third time, and for the third time found it to be an extremely arousing experience.
That’s normal, right? To feel aroused by the film Gladiator? I also fancy the stormtroopers in Star Wars. That’s normal too, yeah? In Gladiator's most iconic scene, our sassy, muscular hero, Maximus, gladiates; slashing his way through six murders in 44 seconds, lobbing his sword at the viewing platform and yelling to the angry mob: "Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?”.
We’re used to division. Politics divides us. The environment divides us. Lady Gaga’s latest album divides us.
Eek! Look around that crowd and you’ll see a couple of super-embarrassed faces. Because of course that’s why they were there! In Ancient Rome the barbaric murder of ‘infames’ (i.e. the notorious in society, which included actors and criminals) was the premium form of immersive entertainment.
They 👏 just 👏 loved 👏 to 👏 see 👏 that 👏 blood 👏.
Above: Russell Crow in Ridley Scott's 2000 film, Gladiator.
The gladiator games united people, both rich and poor. According to many scholars, these deadly spectacles acted as a form of social control. A glorious, convenient distraction from Rome’s rulers, who were steadily sucking agency and autonomy from the lives of regular citizens. Much like public hangings in England - which took place between the 5th and 19th centuries - death shows were a lovely way to catch up with old friends, hang out with colleagues and meet new people. For over 2,000 years, these tactics to distract us with sensation and fake hatred have worked. Our fleeting obsessions with the termination of another human are timeless.
We 👏 just 👏 love 👏 to 👏 see 👏 that 👏 blood 👏.
We don’t just hear an alternative view, we expect the exact, violent opposite.
Nowadays, we’re used to division. Politics divides us. The environment divides us. Lady Gaga’s latest album divides us. The ending of Loki divides us. The concept of wearing masks to protect ourselves and others somehow divides us. We don’t just hear an alternative view, we expect the exact, violent opposite. So, when something finally unites us, like the #freebritney campaign, or the chaotic hellscape of Handforth Parish Council’s Zoom meetings, it’s a welcome relief from the intensity of modern conversation. But, just like those dastardly bloodbaths 2,000 years ago, what never fails to unite us, en masse, is social wrath.
Above: The chaotic Handforth Parish Council’s Zoom meeting both entertained the UK and united it behind Jackie Weaver in December 2020.
Social wrath (aka outrage) has become the dominant currency in social media. It’s never been easier to feel disgusted by someone else’s behaviour. According to Ian Leslie, author of the book Conflicted, the daily news can read like “a parade of villains and atrocities”. Even I’m a villain, according to some, having been accused by the Daily Mail of “wokewashing children” for writing a book called The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks that's aimed at adults. But that’s ok. It’s part of the job, I guess.
We want the shaming and the sackings and the meaningless apologies, and then we want to move on.
According to neuroscientist Molly Crocket, “moral outrage is a powerful emotion that motivates people to shame and punish wrongdoers”. It’s a quick and easy way to demonstrate our values to a large audience and, according to Crocket, “outrage expression provides reputational rewards”. We love it. We get a buzz from it. We get boners from it. I think this is why I become so aroused watching Gladiator, because I’m angry at the mistreatment of Rome’s hottest rebel. Yeah, that’s definitely it.
Social media - Twitter, especially - entertains us with outrage real nice. We want the shaming and the sackings and the meaningless apologies, and then we want to move on. This is how professional trolls (you know who they are) stay relevant and make money. However, very rarely does outrage - at a political statement, or celebrity indiscretion, or shocking news - last long enough for any difference to be made.
Above: Kean was attacked in the national press for “wokewashing children” after the publication of her book, which is aimed at adults.
According to Ashley ‘Dotty’ Charles, author of the book Outraged: "These days the lifespan of outrage rarely exceeds 24 hours, or at least until our attention is diverted towards the next hot talking point. People are so intent on projecting a self-serving image of morality that they now piggyback any prominent cause that might help position them as ethical and compassionate. Publicists tell their clients to ‘find a cause’. Columnists scramble for negative interpretations on which to base their think-pieces.” Erm, #NotAllColumnists, thanks! (Actually. Yes. All columnists.)
Everywhere we looked, there was outrage. Powerful, justified outrage.
But it’s true, isn’t it? We can’t stay mad for long. Not about a single issue, anyway. Regardless of how outrage-inducing (and entertaining) it was. The epic essay Mad Men. Furious Women, by Zoe Scaman, came out on July 4th, and what a true tornado of outrage this beautifully-crafted expose of the ad industry’s abominable treatment of women caused. People were astonished. Gobsmacked. Men (apparently) had no idea that females had been treated to such misogyny and sexual assault. Everywhere we looked, there was outrage. Powerful, justified outrage.
Yet, apparently, trade body talks on the subject have already broken down. Many women have stepped away from the cause because they don’t want to upset men. Rumoured sexual harassers have told their workforces to “move on”. NDAs still exist. Serial offenders continue to thrive. The trauma lives on, despite Zoe and others’ massive attempts to spark a real change.
Above: Zoe Scaman 'unleashed hell' with her essay, Mad Men Furious Women which, in an interview with The Guardian, was labelled as 'advertising's #metoo moment'. [Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Guardian]
But we all said something must be done? Why hasn’t anything been done? Well, let’s put this another way. I’m guessing you read the article… What did you do? Zoe’s clear objective was to provide a call to arms, being as honest as legally and emotionally possible, but it’s not just the responsibility of one woman to make change. Outrage without an objective is pointless. It’s also very dangerous.
Outrage without an objective is pointless. It’s also very dangerous.
According to Molly Crocket, outrage can cause “empathetic distress”. I know many women who felt many different emotions in the days following Zoe’s piece. They relived their abuse and attacks and NDAs (another ill that Zoe is campaigning to eradicate). During this time, the ‘nice’ men hit our DMs for juicy deets, glugging the goss down like a chilled Peroni. “Oooooh, yeaaaaaah, give us that goss. Tell us those names. We’re outraged. Ooooooh, yeah. Like, like, share, share. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! Anyway, about the football….”, before moving on to their next social thrill.
There’s another decent scene in Gladiator. When Russell Crowe’s Maximius is priming his army to kick ass he says, atop a battle pony: “At my signal, unleash hell”. A calm call to action that sends shivers up and down the spine. A fella called Chas unleashed hell last week, but this time it was into a woman called Jo Wallace’s DMs. Chas Bayfield and his creative partner, Dave Jenner, two white, male advertising creatives, recently won their case against JWT for gender-based redundancy discrimination. Cool. They won their case. All discrimination is bad. I’m not a lawyer. Let’s move on.
If words could smell, I’d be spraying industrial air freshener on the page right now.
But what better way to celebrate a tribunal win than by giving an interview to the Mail Online, which resulted in an article that inexplicably accused female Creative Director Jo Wallace of driving the whole thing? An accusation which JWT’s holding group WPP immediately refuted. Wallace had nothing to do with the redundancies, or the court case. The article also discussed Jo’s sexuality, the cost of her home, and posted pictures of her in a bikini. In the days that followed she spent sleepless nights receiving endless death threats. Yeah, that sounds like hell.
“I remember thinking if I was a black 24-year-old woman, I’d be fine,” said Chas in the Mail piece. “If I had been gay, even better,” he continued. If words could smell, I’d be spraying industrial air freshener on the page right now.
Above: A tweet from two days ago highlighting the lack of complaints about the abuse levelled at the treatment of Creative Director Jo Wallace.
There was OUTRAGE! That goes without saying. Fury spurting out of people’s mouths and noses. Jo was an innocent victim, Chas’ quotes appalling (not to mention factually incorrect). Our cries of “SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!” were so loud they could’ve filled a hundred gladiator rings. Thousands of people must have shared the story in disgust (the Mail’s intention?) But guess how many complaints the article has received at the time of writing, via IPSO.
Go on, guess.
Thousands of people, up in arms.
The slacktivists will happily arrange a panel session for their employees on bias or some such but want nothing to do with the realities of everyday sexism and homophobia.
Sixty-fucking-three. 63 complaints through the official channels, after a load of people tweeted their disgust. 63. I’m annoyed at the stunning lack of action but at least you people have handed me the perfect case study for widespread social apathy. [Since the writing of this piece, and the attention drawn to the lack of complaints on social media, the number has risen to 383]
What struck me was the silence from so many brands and agencies who’d spent Pride month turning their logos rainbow and International Women’s Day posting feminist memes, who suddenly didn’t have much to say about an innocent woman in their industry receiving death threats. The slacktivists will happily arrange a panel session for their employees on bias or some such but want nothing to do with the realities of everyday sexism and homophobia. As Jo Wallace said on Channel 4 News (when she was finally allowed to tell her side of a story she never asked to be a part of); “As everybody knows: the industry talks about diversity a lot more than it actions it.”
Above: Jo Wallace's interview with Channel 4 News after being drawn into the recent discrimination case against JWT.
The more the ad industry posts black squares and says they care, yet repeatedly fails to act when it’s time, the more embarrassed I feel for a bunch of folk who clearly have more ego than opinion. If you want change, call yourself an activist and act. If you don’t want to call yourself an activist, then shush.
We have to dispel the myth that awareness is enough. We need action, and outcomes.
If you’re not willing to act, then don’t speak. Because if you speak without doing, you’re waking someone’s trauma, you’re affecting someone else’s mental health and you are a significant - and I do mean significant - part of the problem. If you shared Zoe’s article and you did no more about it, and thought no more about it… why? Was it just entertainment for you?
If 👏 you 👏 just 👏 love 👏 to 👏 see 👏 that 👏 blood 👏 then at least find a fucking bandage.
We have to dispel the myth that awareness is enough. We need action, and outcomes. You don’t like something? Complain through official channels. Tell your clients to stop funding hate: I worked in media for over a decade and can assure you, it’s really easy to not put the Daily Mail on a media plan. You could also have a difficult conversation, call someone out for bad behaviour, stop working with someone who’s displayed immoral behaviour, stop funding immoral behaviour, stop selling immoral behaviour. Don’t share your outrage, share your actions.
Don’t share your outrage, share your actions.
This is embarrassing. Agencies with rainbow logos ignoring homophobic content is embarrassing. Outraged people with no end goal is embarrassing. We should be embarrassed. You haven’t done enough. I haven’t done enough. We have to hold each other accountable, we can’t just be entertained by the fight.
If we do, we remain an industry full of useless stormtroopers and the bloodied victims of a roaring mob who are already onto the next big game.