A little over four years ago at the Cannes Lions, Monica Lewinsky, fresh off a powerful TED talk on the destructive effects of public shaming, held the marketing and technology industries to task.
Her speech wasn’t filled with overtly pointed criticism, but rather with examples, research and opinion about the heavy price individuals pay when faced with cyberbullying. It was also filled with an impressive amount of self-awareness, humility and compassion, to the point that the assembled crowd of advertising people gave Lewinsky a well-earned standing ovation.
Surprisingly, it was only eight months prior that Lewinsky gave her first public talk, which amounts to a 16-year silence despite being in the public eye. From that moment, though, she began building her foundation of activism and advocacy around public shaming and online bullying.
To make her vision come to life, Lewinsky partnered with BBDO New York about three years ago to build impactful campaigns and communication around online bullying. The first work in 2017 was real-life dramatizations (in public places) of cyberbullying that netted a commercial Emmy nomination. The follow-up, in 2018, featured celebrities sharing the insults they’ve endured online, only to contrast them with the successes each has found.
In mid-October this year, BBDO New York launched what could be considered the most powerful effort yet in Lewinsky’s mission to counter the hate of cyberbullying with compassion and empathy.
The Epidemic follows the story of an average American teenager who shows the signs of a mysterious illness and ends up being rushed to the hospital. After watching the film (warning: the PSA includes images and themes that some may find upsetting or triggering), viewers enter their phone number.
From there, they see the film again, only this time they receive the same bullying text messages as the character gets in the story, revealing the actual cause and illustrating the real, human consequences of cyberbullying.
Earlier last week, Lewinsky capped off this year’s campaign by introducing a Twitter tool, @GoodnessBot, an automated account in partnership with the platform that takes the core language of negative or hateful tweets and turns them into more positive or silly versions. This allows individuals to intervene on behalf of friends or strangers in a safe and straightforward way.
“Every year, [BBDO] and I get together and discuss what I’ve seen in the field, the previous years’ campaigns and areas that I think would be really fruitful for us to [explore],” Lewinsky said. “They pitched [the @GoodnessBot] connected to a different idea, and we all fell in love with it and saw the instant tool it could be and how it could quickly help a target of bullying behavior feel less alone and help bystanders become upstanders.”
“The bot is meant to be the anecdote to this epidemic,” said Roberto Danino, creative director at BBDO who runs the account with Bianca Guimaraes, vice president and creative director at the agency. “If we are making the internet negative, just changing some of those words can completely change things from negative to positive.”
Moving forward with compassion
While these three campaigns have put a much-needed spotlight on public shaming and online bullying, the increasingly poignant approaches mirror Lewinsky’s own evolution as an activist.
Since she began speaking publicly and writing for Vanity Fair as a contributing editor, Lewinsky has continued to grow into her role. Her touchstones have been a sense of empathy and a desire to spread compassion at the most significant scale possible.
Texts in The Epidemic are inspired by real messages sent to people who have experienced online bullying. Lewinsky, before showing the PSA to Carol Todd, the mother of Amanda Todd, who died by suicide in 2012 after being harassed online, was worried the concept would trigger negative emotions.
“I didn’t want them to feel it had been trivialized,” Lewinsky said. “Carol [told me] that this was one of the most powerful PSAs she’s ever seen, and she didn’t think others had been honest enough about the negative effect of cyberbullying.”
For its part, BBDO, which has seen significant success from its work for Sandy Hook Promise, took some cues from that client’s work. Yet, according to Guimaraes, the point wasn’t to be “shocking for the sake of it.”
“It’s not just meant to break the clutter with imagery that just will get people’s attention,” she said. “We always try to work based on real insight, and we come from a place where we determine how we are going to change what’s happening. In this case, teams people underestimate the level of harm associated with cyberbullying. We wanted to show that actions online have real life consequences.”
Lewinsky, in her Cannes speech and since then, talks about an image she conjured of the atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in her journey to figure out how to move forward in her life and, as she puts it, “her purpose.” The iconic photo represents destruction in humanity, yet, she envisioned in green the word “compassion” handwritten in the plume.
“This felt really significant to me,” she said. “If people could find a modicum of compassion for what happened to me, like [I did in] that mushroom cloud, that compassion would radiate to other people. So it didn’t have to be for me specifically, but it was about what had happened to me, and that became a guiding principle for me in everything I do.”
What’s telling, and also a signal that the best could be yet to come, is not just the confidence Lewinsky, now 46, exudes in her conviction and dedication to stem the tide of online harassment and abuse, but that it crosses multiple generations.
“I think for some of the older generations, they lived through what happened in 1998, and maybe it feels meaningful to see that I survived,” she said. “If we look at the story a little differently for younger generations, I [can empathize with] what they’re going through, and I know the core of what those experiences are like.”
Looking toward the future, Lewinsky, who gives tremendous credit to BBDO and her PR team at Dini von Mueffling, wants to keep moving the conversation forward while acknowledging that the work from the agencies has been “setting the bar higher” each time.
She also hinted she is beginning to explore becoming a producer to tell stories that both advocate and “help people see themselves in other people’s stories, so they feel more connected and less alone.”
“If all I have done is serve as some tiny reminder to people going through a hard time, that you can get through it, then I’ve done my life’s work,” Lewinsky said.