Updated: Apr 4
This column was published April 2, 2022 in the Manhattan Mercury.
It’s the weekend, a full week after Will Smith ascended the Dolby Theatre stage in Hollywood and slapped Chris Rock. You won’t have to navigate very far from this column to find more tidbits about it.
Oscar Wilde once said there’s only one thing in the world worse than being talked about. And that is not being talked about.
As spokesperson for a governor of Kansas in the 1990s, part of the job was to cultivate an impression. Bill Graves stacks ‘em high and tight. Read: Competent manager. He’s willing to sit down and talk with anyone who’s willing to sit down and talk with him. Read: Uniter, not divider.
When a columnist tried to evoke a silver platter-Grey Poupon image, we invited a different columnist to a sub sandwich lunch in the governor’s office, with a jar of full-calorie Miracle Whip strategically positioned amongst the chips and pickles.
In our first year, when a governor’s cabinet retreat in Oklahoma became a “what’s the matter with Kansas retreat venues?” firestorm, we doused the flames by leaking a tidbit that the governor’s staff rec league softball team had been named, “No Retreat.”
When the impression is grounded in truth, it works.
In the analog, ink-stained olden days, the vehicles were finite. Speeches and impromptu remarks in front of targeted audiences; newspaper articles and broadcast news reports for amplification. Columns, letters to the editor and editorials proved even more effective, since ‘just the facts’ could give way to purposeful opinion sharing, ergo, opinion molding.
The playing field was narrow, but deep.
As a communications vehicle, social media’s impression-generating power make Gutenberg and Marconi look like rank amateurs. Today, the field is a mile wide and an inch deep.
Not convinced that’s good for any of us.
For the sake of discussion, let’s assume Smith, Rock and their publicists’ goal is similar to mine back in the day, to create an impression, a buzz, maybe even without a more granular end game. Do they work backward, by choosing a venue where a lot of eyes will be watching? Maybe the Oscars?
To what end? Will the keeping of their names in the public dialogue lead more consumers of their wares to punch up and pay to view a Chris Rock comedy special, when they otherwise would not? Purposefully add Will Smith flicks to their watch list?
Or will it backfire? Precisely because of a social media-driven limited attention span, will Smith/Rock consumers just recall the slap and quit thinking?
Still, if I’m the publicist for Will Smith or Chris Rock, I will do two things. First, I’ll step aside and allow the tidal wave of publicity to flow over the unwashed masses. Second, I will declare victory and depart the field, but not before jumping on this opportunity to goose my retainer fee.
I guess that’s three things. (See how this works?)
If Oscar Wilde’s premise is true, if the goal is buzz, then specific content doesn’t matter. Motivation is irrelevant.
The dirty little secret is most people have neither the time, inclination or capacity to deeply consider legitimate or manufactured moral outrage, or perceived societal significance of a couple of Hollywood millionaires engaged in high drama on the most visible stage in their industry.
If you’re in the ‘look at me’ business, your bread and Miracle Whip is earned by making people do just that.
Will Smith is an actor. An Academy Award-winning actor. Chris Rock has built his brand on pushing the societal norm envelope. Seems like exactly the kind of thing he would build a comedy special around.
Let the tidal wave of commentary and moral outrage flow, then ebb.
But not too much. These things have a shelf life.