Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Haters Gonna Hate (And That's a Good Thing)

I touched upon this issue when I was writing about the Huggies "Dad Test" fiasco, but since the exact same themes are coming up again as I work on this campaign against Kraft's MilkBites commercials, I thought it deserved some more focused attention.

I've been involved in enough online campaigns involving media content to speak fairly confidently about the universality of this phenomenon. Whenever you see a problematic message and call attention to it, there are going to be people who feel compelled to disagree with you.

Don't get me wrong. I'm okay with people disagreeing with me. I've learned a lot from people who disagree with me, but only when they do so with actual arguments. If you have a legitimate point about why an interpretation of a piece of media may be biased, inaccurate, or incomplete--by all means--share it. And there are some people who do that, but the vast majority of the detractors do not. Instead they respond with one of the following dismissals:
I'm a ________ and I'm not offended, so it's not offensive or (even worse) I know a _______ and s/he's not offended, so it's not offensive. 
With Huggies, a lot of women responded to complaints about the sexist commercials that disparaged dads' ability to parent with something like "My husband thinks these commercials are funny, so I don't know what's wrong with you people who are so offended." With the MilkBites campaign that uses stereotypes about biracial people, someone told me "I'm the biracial son of a biracial man, and I don't find this offensive at all."

Look, offensiveness is not determined by an individual's response. A campaign's potential to offend is determined by an analysis of how a variety of audiences will receive the message, and that means considering things from multiple viewpoints. While you as an individual have every right to your reaction, your individual reaction doesn't speak for the message's reception as a whole, and it doesn't negate someone else's.

Can't you people find something real to worry about
Like what? Telling people on the internet that they care too much? Would that be a better use of my time? This is dismissal, pure and simple. People are capable of caring about more than one cause at a time, and just because this isn't your primary cause doesn't mean that you should try to stop other people from caring about it. There's plenty of passion to go around. Furthermore, just because you don't see the value in the end result doesn't mean it isn't there. For many of us, media messages are the foundation of the way our perceptions about the world are shaped. We often see combatting negative stereotypes in these subtle forms to be a direct way to combat larger, more systemic forms of inequality. In short, this is something real.
It's just a ____________ (commercial, movie, magazine ad, song, etc.)
There is no "just a" text. They are all interconnected and part of the fabric that makes up the way we view the world. The average American teen consumes 10 hours and 45 minutes of media a day. Media has an impact, and ignoring it is shortsighted and dangerous.


But I've said all that before. What working on this MilkBites campaign has taught me is that it's actually a good thing that those people come and say those dismissive things. Here's why. 

A campaign like this usually starts small. One or two people write a blog post and post their concerns on the company's social media sites. The company probably responds with a form response, polite but dismissive and vague. 

But once the movement starts growing, the company tends to stop responding. Maybe they're having some frantic PR meetings to figure out their next move, maybe they just figure it's best not to fan the flames. Whatever the case, when the company falls silent, it can be a hit to the motivation of the protesters. When there isn't a clear fight to be had, it's hard to keep people passionate. 

In come the haters. When these people start with their dismissive, often rude and inflammatory comments (for instance, I've been told to jump off a building because I'm ruining America with my PC-ness and that I'm the "racist" for seeing racism), protesters find a renewed source of energy. Suddenly, the "enemy" (and I use this term loosely, because I truly don't think that these people are enemies, but it fits into a combative narrative) is easy to see. There's something to "win" now. 

Even if the protesters don't directly engage with these commenters (though they often do), I think that the comments give them a sense of why they are protesting to begin with. If you truly see a piece of media as damaging to the collective social fabric, there's nothing more convincing than watching people turn into profanity-laden jerks to try to defend it. Maybe before you were questioning your own cause. "Is this worth it? Does it matter?" you might ask yourself. But now, right in front of your eyes, you have proof that there are people who don't understand the message in the campaign or (worse yet)  understand it and are working to keep it in place. Now you have something to fight for. 

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