There is a difference between defending and condoning controversial but nevertheless free expression and policing it. That distinction seems lost on many, particularly those who derive no greater pleasure in life than from converging on a corporate target and demanding the scalp of an employee who ran afoul of social norms or standards of decorum.
In December, an obscure PR manager for the broadband company InterActive Corp. took to Twitter where she made a racially insensitive attempt at dark humor. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS,” she Tweeted. “Just kidding. I’m white!” The tweet was offensive to many – one suspects it was her intention to be provocative – but it was only seen by her 100 or so followers. This was not her first off-color joke, and it is likely that those 100 or so followers of hers were accustomed to Sacco’s dark humor.
But it was a slow news day with Christmas approaching, and her joke became the center of a shocking social phenomenon. Media outlets picked up on her joke, publicized it, and denounced it with intensifying ferocity. Sacco’s critics demanded her employer account for her actions, even while she was still in the air on a flight to Africa. The Twitter hashtag “#HasJustineLandedYet” became a sensation. Reporters descended on the airport where it was believed Sacco would land. They reached out to her family for comment. A mob, not dissimilar from any other mob history has produced, began to form.
They demanded a scalp, and they got it. Sacco’s employer let her go just hours after the controversy over her tweet erupted. The self-satisfied horde, having stripped this source of validation clean, simply moved on to another target. Sacco eventually landed on her feet but, for a few months, her life was destroyed in order to provide the public with a few hours’ entertainment.
Had Sacco’s employer stood by her, surely the controversy would have lasted slightly longer than it did, but not by much. The horde must be sated and they quickly tire of pursuing satisfaction from a hardened target. InterActive Corp displayed an all too common form of corporate cowardice, one which has become as prolific as it is inexplicable.
A similar example of corporate timidity took place on Friday. Axelle Despiegelaere, a Belgian teen soccer fan, became an internet sensation when she was recently featured in an amateur YouTube video. The young girl was pretty. So pretty, in fact, that the French cosmetics firm L’Oréal swept her up from obscurity and offered her a modeling contract. A L’Oréal video featuring the young girl getting a hair treatment gained over 1 million online views since it was posted on Tuesday. The 17-year-old’s life was radically altered, and it looked like her future would be bright.
But the aspiring model’s fans were apparently shocked to learn that this pretty girl was a fully developed human being with a range of life experiences. No sooner had this teen’s looks gone viral, however, that photographs of the young girl on an African safari where she had hunted and killed big game did so as well. She, too, had indulged in a little dark humor when the young hunting enthusiast made a joke about getting ready to “hunt Americans.”
In the face of outrage from the perennially outraged, the company folded. “L’Oréal Professional Belgium collaborated with her on an ad hoc basis to produce a video for social media use in Belgium,” a company representative told The Independent. “The contract has now been completed.”
The firm’s representative stressed that the images of Despiegelaere on a hunting trip did not directly impact their decision, but they were also quick to add unsolicited that L’Oréal “no longer tests on animals, anywhere in the world, and does not delegate this task to others.”
One suspects that a Venn diagram of those who were offended by Despiegelaere’s African adventure and those millions of women worldwide who purchase and consume beauty products would show the overlap is limited. Nevertheless, the company bowed before the vocal minority.
Though it is a different situation entirely from those above, a similar phenomenon occurred last week when SiriusXM radio host Anthony Cumia was let go from his longtime hosting job with The Opie & Anthony Show.
Cumia, who had a long history of performing Sacco-esque dark, racial humor (as well as many other forms of humor) on his program, was taking pictures in Times Square when he photographed a woman who did not appreciate it. According to Cumia, who took to Twitter shortly after the confrontation, he was assaulted by the woman. He accused her, an African-American, of being a “savage” and attributed his attack to part of a “problem with violence in the black community.”
These racially inflammatory Tweets sparked a familiar firestorm online and, within hours, Cumia’s employer called his remarks “hate-filled” and “abhorrent” in a statement announcing his firing.
Ribald, risqué, skirting the bounds of appropriate modern discourse; these were the qualities that Cumia’s program was known for, and for which its listeners were willing to pay a subscription fee. There is no small amount of irony in the fact that Cumia was let go for Tweeting what his employer considered racially insensitive remarks, whereas the company was happy to pay him for years to say far more inflammatory things on their air. (Full disclosure: I interned for this radio program and XM Satellite Radio in late 2004-early 2005).
The argument in favor SiriusXM’s move was similar to the argument in favor of L’Oreal’s decision to drop Despiegelaere. As private companies, it is their prerogative whether or not to associate themselves with behavior they or others deem inappropriate. But these companies are also cutting off their own nose to some extent. Those paying subscribers who tuned in to The Opie & Anthony Show are tuning out with one half of that 20-year duo having been excised.
“While no hard figures are available, it appears that the “Boycott Sirius” movement is gaining traction and potentially doing damage to the publicly traded company’s bottom line,” The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove reported. “As of this morning, more than 16,000 fans had signed the online petition to give Cumia his job back. Assuming they are current or former customers who either canceled or plan to cancel their SiriusXM subscriptions, that alone could mean a revenue loss of nearly $3 million a year.”
That is money the hard-pressed company can hardly afford to lose. Sirius Satellite Radio stock, which was trading on the NASDAQ at nearly $4 per share in January, is now hovering around $3.38 per share today. The stock price shed 10 cents in the immediate wake of Cumia’s firing. The top-heavy company, which supports burdensome fixed operating costs like a fleet of orbiting communications satellites and celebrity talent, can hardly afford the loss in exchange for the fleeting goodwill of the fickle non-subscribers who expressed their outrage.
In service to the demands of a rabble, however righteous their demands may be in the eyes of many Americans, this company shirked its fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders. Fearful of a backlash from this perpetually aggrieved, these and other companies simply fold. The result? These companies lose formerly satisfied customers and the empty lives of the forever outraged are no fuller for having claimed a scalp. Theirs is a hollow victory.
There are also examples of firms that held firm in the face of the mob. After A&E Television Networks jettisoned Robertson patriarch Phil Robertson for echoing the Bible’s objections to same-sex marriage, the company quickly reversed course when it became clear that few of those who were offended by his comments were regular viewers of his program. Those who were not offended, however, threatened to gravely impact the company’s bottom line. A&E ignored the mob.
No scalps claimed. No careers destroyed. No reputations besmirched. Duck Dynasty’s viewership dipped slightly, and the throng of offended non-viewers had to be satisfied with that as a consolation. SiriusXM and L’Oréal might have taken the same course, and would probably have seen both predicaments resolved in similar fashion.
It bears repeating that noting the contradictions above is not the same as condoning offensive behavior. There is, however, something perverse in the cyclical nature of the reptilian online mob arising, demanding a sacrifice, and moving on to the next target with equal rapidity. They demand conformity of thought and behavior, they are unforgiving of mistakes, and they do not accept apologies. They are not always easily appeased, but it suggests that they can be ignored without much consequence.
It would appear that the mob only has the power that they are granted by the cowardly corporate entities who attempt to assuage them. Their employees are only human; they make mistakes. Would it really destroy a brand if these firms acknowledged that?