Speaking at the fifth edition of Ogilvy & Inspire seminar on day five of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2015 was American social activist, writer and public speaker Monica Lewinsky.
She asked that audience something she was asked in a job interview years ago: ‘If you were a brand, what brand would you be?’ This set up her talk on cyber-bulling rooted in personal experience, featuring Tham Khai Meng, worldwide CCO, Ogilvy & Mather.
She addressed the advertising and marketing audience and said, "You guys know how to shape a brand. You guys have done a top job on most brands. But then there’s been a time, once in your career, when the narrative went away, and the brand may have suffered. Now, think about you being the brand. That’s what happened to me in 1998. I was publicly silent for a decade because of the way I was branded. Eight months ago at the 30-under-30 summit for Forbes, is when I spoke first. In 1998, the oldest of the lot (in the Forbes audience) was 14, with the youngest being four. I joked to some of them that they’d know me only through my name being part of rap song. Around 140 rap songs have my name in it. At the age of 41, I was hit on by a 27 year-old guy. I declined. His unusual pick-up line was that he could make me feel 22. I’m the only person above 40 who doesn’t want to feel 22.”
Referring to her scandal with Bill Clinton, Lewinsky explained, “At the age of 22, I fell in love with my boss. But at 24, I was feeling the consequences. So like me, a few of you’ll would have made mistakes. A few of you’ll have probably fallen in love with your boss. But, your boss wasn’t the president of the United States of America. I’m reminded about this mistake every passing moment. In 1998, I was swept up in a media storm. If the same had happened a few years before 1998, it could have been better. Earlier, news was consumed only through newspapers, radio news or television news. This was the start of the digital revolution. The story broke online. A click reverberated around the world. I went from being a private figure to a public figure. I call myself ‘Patient 0’ of this movement. This story went wild. Pictures of me were everywhere.”
She added, “I made mistakes. But the attention and judgment I received was a lot more. I was called various things. I was seen by many, but known only by few. It was easy to forget that a woman had a soul. There were two Monicas out there. One was me, one was the one that was branded me; branded with little facts and a lot of assumptions. Me, my family and friends didn’t know her. Imagine this happened at a time when Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc weren’t there. But there were stone-throwers online. When it happened to me 17 years ago, it wasn’t called anything. Now, there’s a term for it ‘Cyberbulling'. In 1998, I lost my reputation, my dignity and almost everything, including my life.”
Continuing with how her life was affected by the affair, Lewinsky said, “It was Labour Day weekend in 1998. After months of the controversy, I was by Lake Saranac with my step dad. It was the first moment of peace since the investigation happened. The phone rang. It was the lawyer. I was summoned back to Washington DC. Next, I’m in a windowless room, listening to my voice on several tapped phone calls. I’m legally obliged to listen to all 20 hours of the calls. These calls are over eight months. Who can remember what was said a year ago? I listened to them scared and deeply ashamed of myself. A few days later a report was released with the transcripts. A few weeks later, those were on TV. A select few of those have made it to the internet. Life was almost unbearable. It didn’t happen regularly back then in 1998 (stealing of private moments).”
Then and now...
Lewinsky compared that to the age of social media and how something like that is of worse consequence now. She explained, “Since social media was born, the landscape is worse for both public figures and private lives. I was talking to my mom one day in 2010 about Tyler Clementi
. Clementi had been shot by his room mate when he was intimate with a man. He couldn’t take that and committed suicide. My mom was gutted in pain. She was reliving 1998; a time she lay me to sleep every night. A time when she made me shower with my bathroom door open. There was a time when I thought of suicide too. Today, too many parents haven’t been able to step in on time. The internet does do good, but cyber-bulling and ‘slut-shaming’ exists. Young people are affected. Some don’t live to see the next day.”
The speaker went on to explain that studies in the United Kingdom and United States of America have revealed that bullying does more damage than child abuse. An NGO in the United Kingdom revealed that from 2012 to 2013, there was 87 per cent increase in calls about cyber-bulling.
Humiliation is felt far more intensely than happiness or anger, she contended, coming as it does with a price tag. She made a plea to those on social platforms using these methods to make profits to stop.
Tyler (Clementi) and many others have paid the price, she explained, and said, “This violation of others is packaged and sold at a profit. A work place has emerged where shame is a currency. The more shame, the more clicks. The more clicks, the more advertising dollars."
"There are boundaries where profits need to halt and social responsibility should step in. All the while someone is making money, somebody is suffering. With new media, we all are editors. A click is a choice,” she noted.
Lewinsky went on to speak about a few examples in the recent past where people have suffered because of others wanting to shame them, for profit.
· Snapchat: 8,796 pictures are sent on the platform every second. People think these images are saved only for a few seconds on the servers before they disappear. But, a third party app which helps users keep these images for longer was hacked. Those images (over 1,00,000) were leaked online to humiliate those concerned and earn money.
· Jennifer Lawrence and some other stars had their Apple accounts hacked. Some pictures, which included nude images, were distributed on forums for millions of dollars.
Referring to these examples, she said, “Changing this behaviour begins with changing our beliefs. We’ve seen when there’s a change in belief with stuff like homophobia in the past, people start seeing things in a different way and start accepting things. We need a cultural movement for cyber-bullying too. It’s time for this to stop. We need to begin to return to values of compassion. Shame cannot survive empathy. I’ve seen dark days. Empathy took me through. Even empathy by one person can make a difference. Even online, we can do this. Use a positive comment. We talk about the right of ‘freedom of expression’. We need to talk about speaking up for intention rather than attention. I’m sure you can imagine how much work I’ve done with myself in the last 17 years.”
She added, “People make brands. If people are compassionate, so will brands. We are in this together. Be a part of a society with humanity."
Lewinsky ended with a plea to the industry: “All you vibrant creative minds are here and have done great stuff for the industry. Will you help me with this cause? As I end, I ask you’ll again, if you were a brand, what brand would you be?”
The seminar drew to a close with Khai introducing Upstandr, a movement by Ogilvy & Mather to stand up against cyber-bullying. More on that is here