"If you were a brand, what brand would you be?"
That was a question Monica Lewinsky said she was asked a few years back during a job interview. "When you're Monica Lewinsky, that's a loaded fucking question," she said during the opening lines of her talk at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity on Thursday, noting that she was a brand in major crisis back in the late '90s -- one from which she almost didn't bounce back.
Ms. Lewinsky said that her affair in 1998 with then-president Bill Clinton sealed her fate as "patient zero," the first person to be publicly shamed and ostracized online on a massive, global scale. This scandal, she said, was "brought to you by the digital revolution."
Much of her talk was dedicated to calling for the end of cyberbullying and publicly shaming people, but she also talked about how scandals and public shame have launched an industry, and how the ad world plays a role.
"Violation of others is raw material, efficiently and ruthlessly mined, packaged and sold at a profit. Whether tallied in dollars, clicks, likes, or just the perverse thrill of exposure, a marketplace has emerged where shame is a commodity, and public humiliation an industry," she said.
"How is the money made?" she asked. "Clicks. The more shame, the more clicks. The more clicks, the more advertising dollars. And the more advertising dollars... the more of what sells: shame."
Ms. Lewinsky was quick to add, "This is not an indictment of advertising dollars. I'm sure we can all agree that there's nothing wrong with advertising dollars... But I believe we can also agree there are boundaries where profit halts and social responsibility steps in."
We're in a dangerous cycle, she said. "The more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human life behind it. And the more numb we get, the more we click. All the while, someone is making money off of the back of another suffering." We are all co-creating the content collectively by our clicking behavior, she said -- we are all the editors of new media.
Ms. Lewinsky brought advertising into play, saying brands can play a role in creating a more compassionate world, one that rejects shaming. "Building a more compassionate society is going to be a bilateral exercise between individuals and the brands that represent their aspirations, their values and their truths. People make brands. If people are compassionate, brands will be compassionate in return."
"We can change our behavior….we can together make a society where the sometimes distancing effect of technology doesn't remove our fundamental humanity."
She ended her speech with a plea to the advertising world: "You are the creative engines that will drive forward our culture. Will you help me?...If you were a brand, what brand would you be?"