Desperado – PR stunts that FAIL

8 10 2011

OK, so I am a great fan of collecting “what doesn’t work” in PR and marketing.

Often these stunts – providing they didn’t happen to you – have a bizarre “what on earth were they thinking” feel about them. While I accept that hindsight is 20:20, none-the-less, some of them you have to think “surely they could see this was a bad idea”.

Perhaps they are driven by desperation for some bigger, better, more bizarre, headline-grabbing stunt. Perhaps the client was pressuring them for something clever and witty. Perhaps it was group think, where a group of likeminded people reinforce each other’s opinions without examining any other opinon (see: confirmation bias). Or perhaps a session at the pub was involved.

However this next one fell so flat that it barely made a ripple.

For those of you who aren’t in Australia or have been lucky enough to avoid this knowledge, Kyle Sandilands is a would-be radio shock jock. He was a judge on a few tv reality “talent” shows (Big Brother, Australia’s Got Talent, X-Factor, Australian Idol) where he was the judge you loved to hate.

Until it all came crashing down when he was disgraced in an incident on radio where he and his on-air partner Jackie O, strapped an underage girl to a lie-detector machine and asked her about her sex-life. The obviously distressed girl, when pressured, revealed that she had been raped when she was 12 years old. Kyle’s response was “Right…is that the only experience you’ve had?”, thereby equating violent rape of a child with sexual experience. They did then end the “interview” and offer the daughter and the mother (who apparently knew previously that the daughter had been raped but had brought her in for this interrogation on live radio) counselling.

Clearly this whole incident was wrong on so many levels. From memory, Kyle was suspended from his radio show and sacked from the television show.

Then there was the time he said that loved Australian comedian Magda Szubanski should go to a concentration camp if she wanted to lose weight. Magda’s father had been a Polish resistance fighter in WWII. Magda herself said she didn’t care what he said about her but was offended for people who had experienced concentration camps.

So clearly we are not talking about someone with good judgement about how far to go in saying things to get attention.

So now he is back on the radio, but without quite the high profile he had before.

So the latest stunt (which I did not hear live – this is not a radio show I listen to) was this:

In the midst of their show, Kyle and Jackie O played a song then had a conversation as if they were unaware the microphones were still on.

The conversation related to a woman having come forward alleging she had had a love-child to Kyle. Not really attention grabbing at the best of times since children out-of-wedlock has not been scandalous for several decades. And Kyle is divorced so there is no wife to be horrified by this event. The audio is available here if you would like to hear it yourself.

A couple of news media picked up the story but it was hardly cause celebre scandale (anyone who would like to correct my French, please feel free).

So the next day dawns and Kyle and Jackie O announce that it was a prank designed to distract the news media.

Since I did not hear about it until someone else blogged about it, I can only say “pathetic”. A fairly tasteless attempt to seek attention that fell flat and ultimately will have had the effect of undermining their credibility both as sources of information (even about their own lives, in case anyone is interested) and in exposing their desperation to seek attention and raise their ratings which are in decline (quelle surprise!).

So after the fake prank was revealed (Twitter had already smelled a rat almost immediately), Kyle released the following statement:

“I’m not interested in pranks. I don’t like them… I thought I don’t want to prank anyone other than other media organisations.”

Sounds a little like sour grapes. If you don’t like pranks, don’t do them because you aren’t any good at them.

And depressingly, I have given him way too much airspace here.

If you liked this you might also like When PR gets it wrong.

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Freak Show

16 07 2011

Vintage Freak Show poster: credit: x-ray delta one

Circuses used to feature Freak Shows. Those born with disfiguring deformities or maimed through accident or disease found a way to make a living by exhibiting themselves and their lives to the paying public. I don’t think records exist as to what sort of living they made, but given that many other jobs would have been barred to them at the time, it was probably better than starving. Who knows, perhaps they enjoyed the interactions, being the centre of attention.

Did you think as a society we had moved on from turning the misfortunes of others into a spectator sport?

Starting with a generally celebrity-driven format, the Phil Donahue Show (1967-1996) and later Oprah pioneered the “average Joe and Josephine” stories as interesting to others. We peered into the lives of others, asked probing questions and watched from afar as they cried. We began to believe that the private lives of others could be served up as entertainment for vicarious thrills. But we wanted more drama. We wanted their private lives to be like soap operas.

And so entered the evil twin. Starting with Jerry Springer Show, where family and relationship disputes between dysfunctional, wildly emotional and occasionally violent people were paraded, with Jerry as the lion tamer prodding and poking them into a frenzy. Some of the stories seemed so unbelievably bizarre and complex that viewers speculated that they were made up, with actors playing the parts. Others were just sad. Perhaps this is the latter day version Roman entertainments, where we watch people tear each other apart for our amusement.

And then there is Reality TV where groups of people are placed in artificial situations under high pressure, isolated from their families and friends, deprived of sleep (a form of torture under the Geneva Convention) and asked to do highly stressful tasks such as memorise a song and perform it for a live audience, cook a meal for a visiting celebrity chef with three bizarre ingredients they have never seen before, or compete in some sort of humorous obstacle course hobbled by fancy dress.

According to author Jon Ronson, the insanity we see on Jerry Springer, and the later reincarnations of Reality TV, is not accidental. Of all the people who write into these shows offering up their stories and begging to be given air-time (a sign of insanity to start with), the producers (or at least the one he spoke to) actually picked who would get onto the show based on the level of madness they exhibited. Like Goldilocks and the three bears, they picked their way through the diagnoses to select those madnesses that could be served up for entertainment. Psychotic illness – too much. Mild depression – not enough. Personality disorders – now we’re talking.

What damage is done by placing people with diagnosed mental illness into artificially manipulated high pressure situations and then tormenting them until they crack? Some go on to become minor celebrities, sure. But others may be damaged permanently.

In 1995 the Jenny Jones Show lured a man onto their show to find out who had a secret crush on him. When it was revealed on the show that his secret admirer was a male friend, not a female as he had been led to believe, he appeared to deal with it with a sense of humour. Three days following the taping of the show, he bought a gun, went to the home of his secret admirer – and shot him dead. Surprisingly, the show was not cancelled although that particular episode was not aired. Turns out he had a history of mental illness and drug & alcohol addiction – he was convicted of murder in the second degree and is now serving a 25-50 year prison term. The Show won a suit brought against them by the victim’s family for wrongful death.

One wonders how the contestants fit back into their lives when the TV cameras are gone and all they are left with is the memories of what they confessed or did publicly on TV.

Do we want to be a society that considers watching people disintegrate to be entertaining?

(This blog was inspired by Jon Ronson’s latest book, The Psychopath Test: A journey through the madness industry. Fascinating book that kept me up all night reading, well worth it. Jon can be seen on Youtube explaining a little more about the premise of the book. To purchase the book from Amazon, please click here:The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry