Last Wednesday I had the luxury of escaping my office for a few hours to drop in on Advertising Week. I attended a panel on “Mobilizing Communities in Times of Crisis,” moderated by Anderson Cooper and hosted by the Ad Council.
The panel featured representatives from Facebook, Google, the Red Cross, Save the Children and the Special Olympics. The majority of the discussion focused on efforts by these organizations to rally interest, support, and money behind important causes—mainly humanitarian crises such as the recent earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan. The panel maintained a good blend of anecdotal evidence, hard data, video testimonial, and Anderson Cooper wit.
But what I found most fascinating was the changeup thrown by the representative from the Special Olympics to help mix up the discussion. He shed light on what I found to be more of a PR crisis than a humanitarian crisis—although I suppose where that line is drawn is subject to interpretation.
The issue was on common use of the “R” word, when referring to persons with intellectual disabilities. In the movie Tropic Thunder (which I haven’t seen), Ben Stiller (try to follow), plays an actor who had, in a past role, played a character known as Simple Jack, who had intellectual disabilities. However, references to the movie and his character involved prominent and frequent use of the “R” word.
I was surprised to find that the initial approach by the Special Olympics was a “hammer.” Calls for protests, apologies, boycotts—even an attempt to ban the “R” word from the general public lexicon. But a fight against the first amendment is a fight against a brick wall. It’s unwinnable.
I think the battle to fight is a PR battle, where there isn’t a crowned winner or loser. While that’s not as sexy of a fight, it is a fight where steady, consistent progress can be made. People don’t like to be told what to do. The key is to try to change the public perception of the word. People need to understand why they should change their behavior – how hearing the “R” word affects those with intellectual disabilities. The video testimonials that were shown during the presentation were incredibly moving, and if shown widely, would produce more change than any amount of protesting and boycotting.
The Special Olympics’ recent shift in strategy away from the “hammer” approach is a step in the right direction. I think their goal should be to equate the “R” word in the public’s mind with the worst slur or derogatory epithet associated with each race, religion, or ethnicity. People understand that words can be offensive, and if shown the effect a specific word has on others, most people will change their speaking habits. If the public views the word as offensive, public personas will naturally avoid saying the word. And vice versa. Eventually, it will become socially unacceptable to use the word, like other derogatory terms. The long-term solution, and, in my opinion, the only solution, is to let people choose to change their own habits. “Nudge” people in the right direction, but don’t force them.