Has Advertising Played A Part in the Bullying Epidemic?

The Film 'Bully' Is an Occasion to Focus on Our Role in Defining What's Cool and Stigmatizing Difference

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Are we the real bullies?

That was the question I asked myself after a screening of the documentary "Bully" at the agency. Our client, the non-profit Facing History and Ourselves, was picked by "Bully" director Lee Hirsch as the educational partner for his movie. Our agency's job, obviously, is to get the word out for our client. Step one was to watch the movie.

But it had an unexpected effect.

"Bully" made me feel both responsible and ashamed. It got me thinking about the role advertising has in shaping what's cool and what's uncool, what's normal and what's weird. It reminded me of the many casting sessions I've sat through discussing whether a little girl was pretty enough to be seen with our client's toy, or whether a woman was sexy enough to eat our client's burger. Were they "aspirational?" As all of us in this industry know, such are the countless judgments we make when we're shaping 30 short seconds.

Sure, a few marketers and agencies have broken out of the stereotypes. Ogilvy's "Real Beauty" campaign for Dove is probably the best example. Real women with lumps and bumps and wrinkles, as opposed to photoshopped perfection. But that was in 2004. When was the last time you saw a truly overweight person in a commercial unless he was a "before?" When did you see bad skin that wasn't immediately solved with one potion or another? What about a wheelchair? Or even someone with a limp? And ask the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) about the portrayal (or, for the most part, invisibility) of lesbian, gay and transgendered folks in mainstream advertising.

Our agency's immersion into the issue of bullying has compelled me to ask how all of us in advertising can use our work to help make things better. Bullies generally prey on those who are different from a perceived idea of what is "normal" or in style -- a perception that sadly, we help to create. That little girl and my client's toy? Maybe a little imperfection would have been charming. It would have made the spot stand out in a sea of sameness, while sending the message that it's OK to be different. We can step up and play an important role in the campaign against bullying by starting a conversation in our industry about our part in this epidemic. The buzz generated by "Bully" gives us a perfect opportunity to bring up what is certainly a sensitive topic.

It is admittedly difficult to argue for a change when doing so could put particular clients' brands at risk. But the upside is that it's really a matter of enlightened self-interest. With heightened public awareness of this topic will come heightened scrutiny. And more and more companies are coming to the realization that there's a lot more opportunity to do well by doing good than ever before. Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign worked on many levels. Those clients who show some sensitivity will get enormous credit, as will their agencies.

How-to? We can enlist the help of experts like commercialcloset.com -- GLAAD's advertising media program. We can plan industry viewings of "Bully" with discussion afterward. We can make this a topic of conversation at industry gatherings.Surely Lee Hirsch or representatives from the Weinstein Co. would be interested in talking to advertising agencies and clients about the difference we can make.

There's an easy way to get involved. If you haven't already, go see "Bully." If you have kids, see it with them and watch how they react. This isn't just a matter of someone getting his lunch money stolen or getting a wedgie on the playground. This is too often a matter of life and death. We have the power to make a significant difference. How can we do any less?

Claudia Caplan is CMO of RP3, an independent agency in Bethesda, Md.
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