Headline, Controversy, Click, Share — Who Is Really Profiting From Our Outrage?
“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why, I made that bitch famous.”
With that single lyric, Kanye West sent the internet into frenzied overdrive.
Those two sentences, taken from Kanye’s new song Famous, managed to send some of the internet’s fiercest and most outspoken keyboard warriors into battle. Die hard Taylor Swift fans joined forces with outraged feminists to rail Kanye for the misogynistic slur, while Kanye’s fans dug their heels in and Kim Kardashian fans sort of just stood around awkwardly, not quite sure what to do.
Celebrities picked sides, and soon the controversy had leaked from Twitter to nearly every news publication in the Western world.
Meanwhile, Kanye could just sit back, kick up his feet and watch as his face appeared on every news publication around the world just days before his album was due to drop. How convenient. Each article an implicit advertisement for his new record. A nice little reward for zero effort.
Welcome to the new age of advertising. Forget sex. Controversy is what really sells in the internet age.
Kanye argued it was legitimate artistic expression, and judging by his subsequent crazed rants, it’s likely he didn’t methodically plot the lyric as part of a global marketing plan. But you can’t deny its marketing genius and potential to be recreated. Start with an internationally adored celebrity with millions of fans, dredge up some sworded history and add a dash of misogyny and put it on Twitter and you’ve got yourself a ready-made controversy ready to be dished out to the masses.
Let’s face it, we as media distributors and consumers have become utterly predictable. Ripe for manipulation. We lap up controversy, scream our outrage and in the process rack up millions of clicks and shares for the offending post or product in the process, filling their pockets with tainted wealth.
We live in an age where a single Tweet is enough content to fill an article, where “outrage on Twitter” is enough to unequivocally represent the population’s consensus on any issue. Kanye’s recent tweets alone have fuelled thousands of articles, breaking down each individual, manic tweet. Twitter is like a highway, with people stopping to gawk at the latest car crash. The bigger the crash, the more people stop to look.
The question is, how much of this controversy is manufactured to promote products and brands?
Take Coldplay for example. For anyone who’s spent more than five minutes on the internet, it’s common knowledge that cultural appropriation is a no-go. It doesn’t matter where you stand on the issue, it is clearly contentious and should be avoided like partially cooked chicken. Yet Coldplay decided to go ahead and shoot their latest video clip in India, with Beyonce dressing up in traditional Desi clothing.
Later that day, the outrage started to surface, and publications picked it up swiftly. People clicked. People watched. Scores of people (including myself) only heard about the new video through the minor controversy. A timely boost in a flagging marketing campaign for an underwhelming album.
Unintentional? I call bullshit.
These days, a successful campaign can be measured by how many publications have criticised you for it, whether Huffington Post or Pedestrian TV or Junkee have weighed in, using their huge audiences and influence to get it out to as many eyeballs as possible. The harder they slam you, the more publicity you gain. The message being sent is the more controversial, the better. The more discriminatory, the better.
A few years ago Robin Thicke, the man whose personality matches his last name, rode a wave of controversy to the top of the charts with his hit Blurred Lines. Widely known as one of the most misogynistic, rapey songs out there, it was categorically slammed. Yet like any great controversy, it left in its path a trail of parody videos, op-eds, features and think pieces all leading back to the poisonous source. In the process, it racked up enough views and downloads to top global charts.
There’s a long list of people and products that have benefitted from their own discrimination or stupidity. Meryl Streep, the poor lamb, has a habit of putting her foot in her mouth. Her film Suffragette last year copped some serious flack when the actors wore racially insensitive T-shirts in the promotion tour, landing features in the Guardian and just about everywhere else just before the film’s release.
In some of these cases, it’s easy to see how something well-intentioned but ultimately naive and ignorant became misconstrued. Often it’s important to question and bring these mistakes to light, to educate people on often ignored plights and issues. The Melbourne restaurant that featured the late rapper Biggie Smalls eating fried chicken on their walls brought to attention the racist undercurrents of stereotypically associating black people with fried chicken and watermelon.
It’s important here to recognise the different levels of culpability. Clearly not every controversy is cooked up by a crack marketing team. Meryl Streep didn’t intend to create a stir, just as the Melbourne restaurant didn’t intend to make national news by simply expressing their deep affection for Biggie Smalls. As for Coldplay and Kanye, you be the judge.
The point is, regardless of their intent, all of these people benefitted from the controversy they created. If marketing teams don’t already have ‘controversy’ scrawled at the top of their objectives yet, they sure as hell should judging by easily we jump on and promote controversial material.
Azealia Banks’ career stays afloat by attracting consistent media attention through discriminatory, violent behaviour and stunts. In recent years, she’s repeatedly started beef with Macklemore and Iggy Azalea (okay, fair enough), bitten a female bouncer, narrowly avoided assault charges, engaged in homophobic rants and worst of all — agreed to vote for Donald Trump.
In the culture of all this outrage, we’ve managed to develop a remarkable ability to compartmentalise controversy. We can be simultaneously insulted, offended and outraged while downloading the songs on iTunes and heading to the same movie with friends. After all, Blurred Lines was a banger.
It all boils down to the age-old concept that any publicity is good publicity — to a certain extent anyway. Individuals and brands are regularly destroyed by controversies. But if implemented cleverly, controversy becomes a spice to garnish an individual or product, to give it a little kick into popular culture.
The bottom line is, Azealia Banks’ next song is more likely to be picked up by a greater audience. Much like strolling through a supermarket and picking up a certain brand of cleaning product, you can’t always remember why you know the name — but you pick up the product all the same for the sake of familiarity. I caught myself typing in Rob Thomas into Spotify just moments after being disgusted by his comments about Indigenous Australians. I stopped myself when I realised that I’d be rewarding him for this comment if I streamed any of his music as a result.
The world is becoming smaller every day, and publications are increasingly inundated with potential news stories. Thousands of events, shows, movies, actors and artists all vying for attention, desperate to wrestle their way to your newsfeed. But news sites aren’t going to simply post a nice little trailer of your new show with an accompanying think piece. Unless you’ve offended an entire fringe community, you’re unlikely to be picked up.
Don’t solely blame the media though. They might dish out the stories, but the audience scoffs them down without a second thought. Websites are slaves to traffic, and controversy brings traffic in droves.
We’ve become vulnerable. All someone has to do is add a pinch of racism, sexism, transphobia or start beef with a celebrity and their product gets a free advertising campaign. It’s only going to get worse when Facebook rolls out the new Facebook like options, which includes an angry face — giving the potential for posts to literally trend solely on outrage. Trump has rode a wave of wall-to-wall media coverage spurred on by his consistently discriminatory comments to lead the Republican nominations. The potential President of America has exploited our weakness for outrage.
So what’s the solution?
A simple solution would be to stop reporting on these controversial issues ad nauseum. One article here or there isn’t going to end the world but it’s the relentless campaigning, repetitive churn, entire articles based on a tweet (and we all know how much nuance and context you can include in 140 characters) that add to the infamy of something unworthy of our attention. Stop rewarding controversy with publicity and the culprits will stop benefitting from their bigoted or discriminatory remarks.
However, calling people out on their views has contributed to increased awareness of discrimination and injustices. “Keyboard warriors” have hastened the causes of feminism and marriage equality and given voices to otherwise ignored minorities. This shouldn’t stop. Instead, we need to think about the most effective ways to do this without the marketing blitzkrieg. For starters, we need to recognise that people can fuck up sometimes and the degree to which we get outraged should be measured by the offence.
A balance is needed. We need to be able simultaneously call-out discrimination when it’s necessary, but not allow the perpetrator to profit. For example, if you fundamentally disagreed with the cultural appropriation of Indian culture in Coldplay’s song, condemn it without linking to it and encourage others to do the same.
When renowned YouTuber Alex Day became caught up in allegations of sexual manipulation of women, angry fans vowed not to promote Alex’s future videos where he defended his actions. Instead, a handful of people would watch the videos and post pictures and transcripts of the videos for others to see on social media without directing views, traffic and money to the YouTuber. Therefore simultaneously calling him out on the abuse but not rewarding him for it.
The media *looks around suspiciously* also needs to stop taking the bait so often from controversy mongers like Azealia Banks, and let her mindlessly insult others in the privacy of her own home.
Waleed Aly suggested a similar fix in his viral takedown of Roosh V, a pro-rape activist. He suggested every time you want to tweet about Roosh, instead donate to a women’s shelter. People are already taking this into their own hands.
We need to start valuing our likes and clicks as if they were dollars in our wallet. Distribute with care and reasonable thought. For every click, you give to the latest movie or celebrity embroiled in a transphobic controversy, give another click to a LGBTI cause. Promote positive action just as frequently as condemning discriminatory content.
More often than not, when you see a blatantly obvious controversy unfurling on your timeline, just keep scrolling.
Originally published on The Vocal by Cameron Nicholls