Commentary

How Does Sacha Baron Cohen Get Away With It?

So Sacha Baron Cohen is up to his old tricks again.  After having achieved notoriety as Ali G, the fake interviewer with the funny accent who duped former Secretary of State James Baker and others into answering silly questions, Baron Cohen went on to even greater fame as Borat, a fake documentarian from Kazakhstan.

The Baron Cohen shtick is to make politicians and ordinary people look ridiculous by tricking them into interviews under false pretenses and then engaging them in an increasingly absurd line of questioning until they figure out they’ve been had.  This is supposed to reveal something profound about the purported absurdity of the American experience.

This is hardly an original approach to comedy or social commentary.  Half of the content on“The Daily Show” consists of mocking interviews with some poor rube who doesn’t watch “Comedy Central” and doesn’t know better than to engage with its “correspondents.”

But my purpose today is not to critique Baron Cohen’s new Showtime series “Who Is America?,” which I probably won’t be watching anyway, but to wonder how it is that 14 years after “Da Ali G Show,” people still fall for his tricks?

I have a professional interest in this question. Having worked in public relations for a long time, I’d like to think that no client of mine would even be interviewed by a disguised Sacha Baron Cohen.  It is the job of a PR handler to vet the interviewer well before anyone agrees to talk in front of a camera.  You do this by talking with his or her producer, then verifying everything they’ve told you via Google searches and databases like Cision and Gorkana.  Best practices would then call for the PR team to produce a briefing memo with the bio of the interviewer, some suggested themes, and maybe even some potential questions.

It’s fair to say that none of these procedures were followed before Baron Cohen’s victims agreed to be interviewed for “Who Is America?” However, those of us on the outside are in no position to second-guess too aggressively, because we don’t know what claims were made to induce the subjects to be interviewed.  

There are allegations that Baron Cohen and his staff gained credibility by telling interview targets they were working on a series for Showtime.  If that’s true, I think this is the last time any sane person would allow himself to appear in a program described as a Showtime documentary.  On the other hand, at least one of the Baron Cohen characters apparently represented himself as a representative of truthbrary.org, which purports to be a conspiracy-oriented website.  If anyone clicked on this outlandish site and still agreed to the interview, then he got everything he deserved.

My guess is that few if any PR handlers were involved in arranging these interviews.  The people who appear in “Who Is America?” fall into two general categories: 1) politicians like Bernie Sanders, Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney, who have been interviewed so many times that their staffs probably no longer bother to do rudimentary checks on interviewers; and 2) regular schmoes who are interviewed so rarely that they don’t even know they should do some research first.

Reporters sometimes claim that public relations people run interference between them and potential newsmakers — but shows like “Who Is America?” and “The Daily Show” demonstrate why so many people use PR staff to shield them from potential mockery.   If I were in the Public Relations Society of America, I would launch a PR campaign based solely on Sacha Baron Cohen clips with the tagline, “Don’t Let This Happen To You!” 

2 comments about "How Does Sacha Baron Cohen Get Away With It?".
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  1. Farnaz Wallace from Farnaz Global, LLC, July 25, 2018 at 12:30 p.m.

    what a blatant sales pitch for your PR business....yes, PR firms can avoid politicians embarrasements and avoid their true selves to shine through.

  2. Fern Siegel from MediaPost, July 28, 2018 at 12:11 p.m.

    How about this: We hold politicians accountable for their actions.
    If they don't have the sense to suss out a dubious interview, or are willing to drop their drawers and scream the n-word or sign "waterboard kits" when asked, clearly they don't have the judgment and gravitas to hold public office.

    The politicians participated even when the requests were idiotic. This isn't "trickery," it's a comedic way to speak truth to power. And power is found wanting.

    As for PR vetting, a recent study by Bospar PR found that while 72% of PR professionals feel inventing “fake news” is wrong, 28% are willing to manufacture news. Plus, more than half of PR pros interviewed are OK with using click-bait headlines, telling white lies and/or don’t take issue with sensationalizing boring news.

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