Even On TV, UGC Can Get Ugly
We've even had it on TV for decades, in the form of the many international shows showcasing home videos, in pursuit of cheap ratings while displaying what is -- for the most part -- excruciatingly stupid behavior and bad luck.
While considering a different realm of excruciating behavior, it occurred to me over the last week that there is another kind of UGC on TV which has just shown itself to affect advertisers.
You may have heard something of the U.K.'s current series of "Celebrity Big Brother" (which far outstripped the program's performance in the U.S. to become something of a media phenomenon) and the racist behavior exhibited by some of the housemates (inmates) toward another.
The victim in this case was Shilpa Shetty, the one true A-list celebrity in the series, being as she is a superstar of Bollywood. The culprits were two decidedly F-list nonentities. The first, Jade Goody, is best known for coming third in a non-celebrity "Big Brother" and for astounding the viewing public at the time with a display of behavior that suggested she had somehow got stuck further down the evolutionary ladder than the rest of us. The second is someone called Danielle Lloyd, a model and all-round party animal known for dating soccer players.
Along with such niceties as mocking Shetty's accent, referring to her as "the Indian" and declaring that "she should f**k off home," Goody and Lloyd were responsible for some less-than-stellar landmarks in the world of reality TV.
Ofcom (the approximate U.K. equivalent of the FCC, but without the latter's hysteria around matters of prurience) reported that the program received more complaints than any other, with a current total of around 38,000. A full-blown diplomatic incident was prompted between India and Britain, with a trade visit by the U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer derailed, and the matter discussed on the floor of the Houses of Parliament. Politicians from all sides joined in the condemnation. Even Tony Blair felt the need to make his feelings known. Effigies (supposedly representing the show's producers, Endemol) were burned in the streets of some Indian cities. And different groups within the U.K.',s large Indian community -- even those normally antagonistic toward each other -- were united in their opposition disgust.
In the end, the two celebrities up for eviction from the house last Friday were Goody and Shetty, and the 82% of the public vote was resoundingly in favor of kicking out Goody. While this can be portrayed as a vote against racism -- which it may or may not be -- there can be little doubt that the whole affair (including the media coverage) heightened racial tensions in some communities.
What, you may ask, does all this have to do with UGC and advertisers? Well, when unscripted and unpredictable individuals are the subject of content viewed by program fans, what you invariably have is a form of UGC. The programmers may provide the context and setting. They may have varying degrees of control over what happens and what the public gets to see. But in this case, even though these people were part of a staged spectacle, their behavior was very much their own -- and it was their behavior that formed the content.
The marketing ripple effect is already being felt. Although Channel 4 (which broadcast the show) must feel pleased that the audience more than doubled during the week, from 3.5million to 8.8million viewers, the furor around the affair has been anything but welcome. The show's sponsor, Carphone Warehouse (Europe's largest retailer of cell phones) has pulled its sponsorship, which amounts to roughly $6 million, for fear of being associated with racial intolerance and bullying.
Those who had any kind of commercial relationship with Goody or Lloyd are also having second thoughts. Lloyd has lost at least one modeling contract, while Goody's apparently popular fragrance is being pulled from the shelves (just what does bigotry smell like, I wonder?). Ironically, Goody had until now been a public supporter of an anti-bullying charity. It has been reported that this relationship, too, is likely to end.
So while advertisers and their agencies express their concern about the risks of placing their brands alongside content on MySpace or any of the other social networking sites for fear of being aligned with something off-brand, off-color and offensive, we should spare a thought for poor old Carphone Warehouse. The company thought it was sponsoring an established, successful and safe program on the safest of all (regulated) media, only to be hijacked by the unrestrained, deeply unpleasant and ultimately un-manageable aspects of human behavior.
It's ironic, isn't it, that probably the best example of the dangers of being associated with UGC is to be found on TV, where the audience is huge and -- in this case -- the surrounding media attention served as an amplifier.
There may be one positive note to come from this mess. Apparently Shetty's dignified behavior has put her in a very favorable light; interest in her films is reported to be on the rise. Small consolation for her public humiliation, however.