CANNES, France—Whether they know it or not, advertisers are fueling a "blood sport" of public shaming both online and off, Monica Lewinsky told a packed crowd at the ad industry's top event.
Rather than being put off by her hard-hitting message, though, the Cannes Lions audience on Thursday showed Lewinsky tremendous appreciation, giving her one of the festival's few standing ovations.
In a session sponsored by Ogilvy & Mather, Lewinsky asked the world's creative and marketing leaders to help usher in a new era of compassion and empathy. The challenge? Breaking a cycle of invasive, abusive social behavior that may be driven by mean-spirited trolls but is subsidized by the advertisers who buy space in websites and other media that thrive on public embarrassment.
Obviously it's a topic Lewinsky knows well, having been the first private figure to become a public lightning rod for mockery and scorn in the Internet age. Her sexual relationship with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s led to a years-long nightmare for Lewinsky, who ultimately dropped out of the public eye for nearly two decades.
Now she has returned to the global stage as an advocate for more compassionate behavior online and in the media. She followed up her popular TED Talk by coming to Cannes, where she spoke to an international audience representing brands, tech companies, agencies and other key industries.
The following is the full transcript of her presentation to the Cannes Lions:
If you were a brand, what brand would you be?
That's a question I was asked in an interview—a job interview just several years ago.
Let me tell you, when you're Monica Lewinsky, that's a loaded fucking question.
All of you here today touch marketing and advertising with successful, established and respected companies. You're familiar with what it means to nurture, grow and shape a brand. And while unfortunate, it's likely that at one point or another, you've experienced a brand crisis, when your brand's narrative ran away from you.
But can you imagine what it is like when the brand is you? You personally. Your likeness, your name, your history, your values, your soul?
That's what happened to me in 1998.
You're looking at a woman who was publicly silent for a decade due in part to a brand crisis and branding, or rather how I was branded, by whom and for what purpose. Obviously the publicly silent bit has changed, but only recently.
It was eight months ago that I gave my first public talk at the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit. Fifteen hundred brilliant people, all under the age of 30. That meant that in 1998, the oldest among the group were just 14 years old, and the youngest were 4.
I joked that some of them might know me only from rap songs. Yes, I'm in rap songs. By my original count, it was almost 40 rap songs, but it actually turned out to be over 120, with a new one added just last week. In fact, there's probably a Spotify playlist of all these songs.
The night of my speech a surprising thing happened. At the age of 41 I was hit on by a 27-year-old guy. Crazy, right? He was charming, and I was flattered. And between us, I thought about it for a second, but I did decline.
What was his unsuccessful pickup line? That he could make me feel 22 again. I realized later that night I'm probably the only person over 40 who does not want to be 22 again.
At the age of 22, I fell in love with my boss, and at the age of 24, I learned the devastating consequences.
Now, I'd like to see a show of hands, please. Who here has ever made a mistake that you regretted? Now leave your hand up if everyone in the auditorium knows about that mistake. Not a one of you? You advertising folks are supposed to be naugthy!
Like me, a few of you may have made your mistake at 22. You may also, like me, have taken wrong turns and fallen in love with the wrong person, maybe even your boss. Unlike me, though, your boss probably wasn't the president of the United States of America.
Not a day goes by that I'm not reminded of my mistake, and I regret that mistake deeply.
In 1998, after having been swept up into an improbable romance, I was then swept up into the eye of a political, legal and media maelstrom like we had never seen before.
If the investigation had unfolded only a few years earlier, it would have been against the backdrop of a much slower and quieter media landscape. Up until then, news was consumed from just three places: reading a newspaper, listening to the radio or watching it on television. That was it.
But that wasn't my fate. Instead, this scandal was brought to you by the digital revolution.
This meant we could access all the information we wanted, when we wanted it, anytime, anwhere. When the story broke in January 1998, it broke online. It was the first time traditional news was usurped by the Internet. A click that reverberated around the world.
What that meant for me personally was that overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one, worldwide.
I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously. around the world, this story went. A viral phenomenon. News sources plastered photos of me all over to sell papers, banner ads online and to keep people tuned to the TV.
Did a particular image of me just come to mind? Say, me wearing a beret?
Now, I admit I made mistakes, and I think we can probably all agree that wearing the beret was one of them. But the attention and judgment I received—not the story, but that I personally received—was unprecedented.
I was branded as a tart, slut, whore, bimbo, floozy and, of course, "that woman." I was seen by many but truly known by few.
And I get it. It was easy to forget that woman was dimensional, had a soul and was once unbroken.
During this period, I came to realize that there were two Monica Lewinskys. There was me, and there was the public Monica Lewinsky. She was branded and constructed by various political factions in the media. Branded and constructed with a little fact and a lot of fiction.
My friends didn't know that Monica. My family didn't know that Monica. And this Monica, the real Monica, standing here today, didn't know her either.
This rush to jugment, enabled by technology, led to mobs of virtual stone-throwers. There was no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram back then, but there were gossip, news and entertainment websites, replete with comment sections, and of course there was email. The cruel jokes certainly made the rounds.
When this happened to me 17 years ago, there was no name for this. Today we call it cyberbullying and online harassment.
I want to share some of my experience with you, talk about how my experience has helped shape my cultural observations and how I hope my past experience can lead us all to more compassionate behavior, specifically branding with compassion.
In 1998, I lost my reputation and my dignity. I lost almost everything, and I almost lost my life.
Let me paint a picture for you. It's Labor Day weekend in 1998. I've traveled up to my stepdad's cabin up in the beautiful and calming Adirondacks in upstate New York. We're right on Lake Saranac, cosseted by the reassuring permanence of the majestic, soaring pine trees.
It's the first real moment of peace I've had since the investigation started over half a year ago. I'm just beginning to replenish my soul in nature, and dare I say relax, and the phone rings. I'm told I have a phone call. It's one of my lawyers.
I've been summoned back to Washington, D.C., immediately. Within 48 hours, I'm sitting in a windowless room inside the office of the Independent Counsel underneath humming fluorescent lights. I'm listening to the sound of my voice—my voice in surrupteiciously taped phone calls that a supposed friend had made the year before. I am here because I have been legally required to authenticate all 20 hours. Yes, you heard me correctly, all 20 hours of taped phone calls.
And by legally required, I mean if I refuse to do this, the immunity to prosecution I had received would be taken away. I'd be sent to trial with the threat of jail.
For eight long months since I'd first learned of their existence, the mysterious content of these tapes has hung like the Sword of Damocles over my head. Who can remember what they said a year ago?
Scared and mortified, I listened. Listened as I prattled on about the flotsam and jetsam of the day. Listened as I confessed my love of the president, and of course my heart broke. Listened to my sometimes catty, sometimes churlish, sometimes silly self, being cruel, unforgiving, uncouth. Listened as I expressed views I didn't know I held. Listened deeply, deeply ashamed to the worst version of myself—a self I don't even recognize.
A few days later, The Starr Report is released to Congress, and all those tapes and transcripts, those stolen words, form a part of it.
That people can read the transcripts is horrific enough. But a few weeks after that, the audio tapes are aired on TV and significant portions made available online. The public humiliation was excrutiating, and life was almost unbearable.
This was not something that happened with regularity in 1998, and by this I mean the stealing of people's private words, conversations, actions or even pictures and then making them public—public without consent, public without context and public without compassion.
Fast forward 12 years to 2010, and social media has now been born. The landscape has sadly become much more populated with instances like mine, whether or not someone had actually made a mistake, and now for both public and private people, the consequences for some were dire. Very dire.
I was on the phone with my mom in September 2010, and we were talking about the news of a young college freshman from Rutgers University named Tyler Clementi. Sweet, sensitive and creative Tyler, who played the violin and rode a unicycle—sometimes simultaneously—had been secretly webcammed by his roommate when he was intimate with another man.
When the online world learned of the incident, the ridicule and cyberbullying ignited. A few days later, submerged in the shame and humilation, Tyler jumped from the George Washington Bridge to his death. He was 18.
My mom was beside herself about what happened to Tyler and his family. While we were both upset, she was gutted with pain in a way I couldn't quite understand.
Eventually, I realized she was reliving 1998, reliving a time when she sat by my bed every night, reliving a time when she made me shower with the bathroom door open, and reliving a time that both my parents feared I would be humiliated to death, literally.
There were moments for me when it seemed like suicide was the only way to end the ridicule. And in this tiny respect, the blaring headlines were actually a blessing. My parents knew what I was going through because there was no mistaking it and no escaping it.
But today, too many parents haven't had the chance to step in and rescue their loved ones. Too many have learned of their child's suffering after it was too late.
In 1998, we had no way of knowing where this brave new technology called the Internet would take us. Since then, it has connected people in unimaginable ways—joining lost siblings, saving lives, launching revolutions. But the darkness, cyberbullying and slut shaming I experienced had mushroomed.
Every day online, people, especially young people who aren't developmentally equipped to handle this yet, are so humiliated that they can't imagine living to the next day. Some, tragically, don't, and there's nothing virtual about that.
Only a few months ago, new research was published of a longitudinal study conducted in both the U.S. and the U.K. The findings? Bullying was more damaging than child abuse. A victim of bullying was nearly four times more likely to suffer from mental health problems than a victim of child abuse.
ChildLine, a U.K. nonprofit that helps young people dealing with various issues, released this staggering statistic late last year: From 2012 to 2013, there was an 87 percent increase in calls related to cyberbullying.
What shocked me, though it shouldn't have, was research published last year that humiliation was a more intensely felt emotion than either happiness or even anger. Cruelty to others is nothing new, but the shift in the power of humilation, given the breadth of the Internet, the reach is something altogether different.
Online, technologically enhanced shaming is amplified, uncontained and permanently accessible. It is loud, and there are no borders, no perimeters around how many people can observe it once and put you in a public stockade.
The echo of embarrassment used to extend only as far as our family, school or community. But now it's the online community too.
Millions of people, often anonymously, can stab you with their words. Can you imagine for a second what that pain feels like? Name calling, hate speech and online threats are weaponized words. Even as I'm talking to you now, this is happening to someone online. And I guess, depending on what you're all tweeting, that someone might be me.
Authors like Jon Ronson are writing about the online public stockade and bringing awareness to the scale and depth of online humiliation, particularly for people who made mistakes or choices that led to their online suffering.
Just ask Justine Sacco, whose life has been derailed. She took off from the United States as a private person, and because of one unfortunate tweet she posted before she left, when she landed in South Africa, she was the object of public scorn and ridicule—instantaneously, globally.
No matter how you viewed her regrettable tweet, do we want to live in a world with that large of a scale of scorn? I'm certainly not saying people need to be silent or silenced, but I do believe we need to think before we think out loud and online.
There is a very personal price to public humiliation, and the growth of the Internet has jacked up that price.
For nearly two decades now, we've slowly been sowing the seeds of shame and public humiliation in our cultural soil, both on- and offline. Gossip websites, paparazzi, reality programming, politics, news outlets and sometimes hackers all traffic in shame. It's led to desensitization and a permissive attitude online to cyberbullying, harassing and threatening.
This shift has created what Professor Nicolaus Mills calls "a culture of humiliation." And in this culture of humiliation, there's another kind of price tag attached to public shaming. The price does not measure the cost to the victim that Tyler and too many others have paid. Rather, the price measures the profit of those who prey on them.
This violation of others is raw material, efficiently and ruthlessly mined and packaged and sold at a profit. Whether tallied in clicks, likes or just the perverse thrill of exposure, a marketplace has emerged where shame is a commodity and public humiliation an industry.
How is the money made? Clicks. The more shame, the more clicks. The more clicks, the more advertising dollars. And the more advertising dollars—well, we can all see where this is going—the more of what sells: shame.
But this is not an indictiment of advertising dollars. I'm sure we can all agree that there's nothing wrong with advertising dollars here. But I believe we can also agree there are boundaries where profit halts and social responsibility steps in.
Now we're in a dangerous cycle. The more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it, and the more numb we get, the more we click. All the while, someone is making money off the back of another's suffering.
Political commentator Sally Kohn pointed out in her TED talk on clickbait that because of online algorithms, we are now co-creating our content by our clicking behavior. As she said, "We are the editors of the new media. Clicking is a public act." I would argue a moral one too.
We don't stop to think that with a click on clickbait, we are entering the online Coliseum. With every click, we make a choice, myself included. The more we saturate our culture with this kind of shaming, the more accepted it is, the more we will see behaviors like cyberbullying, trolling and online harassment, and some kinds of hacking.
Why? Because they all have humiliation at their cores. This behavior is a symptom of the culture we've created.
Consider a few prominent examples from the past year alone:
Snapchat. Every second, there are 8,796 photos posted to Snapchat. The service claims its messages only have a livespan of a few seconds. But a third-party app which Snapchatters used to extend the lifespan was hacked. One hundred thousand personal conversations, videos and videos were leaked online to have a lifespan of forever.
A hundred thousands personal conversations, photos and videos leaked online to be publicly humiliated and be clicked.
Jennifer Lawrence and several other actors had their iCloud accounts hacked and private, personal nude photos were splattered across the Internet without their permission. One gossip website had over 5 million hits for just one article on this story.
What about the Sony Pictures cyberhacking? Of course the documents that received the most attention were the private emails that had maximum public embarrassment value, which meant maximum clicks and dollar signs.
Aaron Sorkin described it best: "If you close your eyes, you can imagine the hackers sitting in a room, combing through the documents to find the ones that would draw the most blood. And in a room next door are American journalists doing the same thing. As demented and criminal as it is, at least the hackers are doing it for a cause. The press is doing it for a nickel."
And most recently, Caitlyn Jenner. She spoke to Vanity Fair about a time this past year when she considered taking her own life. The impetus? She learned a gossip outlet planned to release information, private information about her transgender journey, information that at the time would have been shocking news to her family.
Having your narrative stolen can be that devastating. Fortunately, she garnered strength in the moment and made it through. The gossip outlet, on the other hand, they garnered clicks and dollars.
Changing this behaviour in our culture begins with evolving our beliefs. We've seen that to be true with racism, homophobia and plenty of other biases now and in the past. As we've changed beliefs about same-sex marriage, we've seen more people being offered equal freedom. Valuing sustainability led to more recycling.
So as far as our culture of humiliation goes, what we need is a cultural revolution. Public shaming as a blood sport must stop. It's time for an intervention on the Internet and in the culture.
The shift begins with something simple, but it's not easy. We need to return to a long-held value of compassion, compassion and empathy.
Online, we've got a compassion defecit, an empathy crisis.
Researcher Brene Brown said, "Shame cannot survive empathy."
I've seen some very dark days in my life, and it was empathy and compassion from my family, friends, professionals and strangers that helped me get through. Even empathy from one person can make a difference.
The theory of minority influence proposed by social psychologist Serge Moscovici showed that there is power in small numbers when there's consistency over time. In the online world, we can foster minority influence by becoming upstanders.
To be an upstander instead of bystander apathy means to stand up for someone else online or maybe report a bullying situation. Use a positive comment. Online media can tear us down, but it can also build us up.
Trust me, compassionate comments help abate the negativity. I am, after all, on Twitter.
We can also counteract the culture by supporting organizations addressing some of these issues, like Bystander Revolution and the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which are both in the U.S. In the U.K., there's Anti-Bullying Pro and Project Rockit in Australia.
We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression…
(At this point in the speech, a stage tech's voice could be heard coming through the auditorium's loudspeakers, causing Lewinsky to pause.)
At least he wasn't saying something nasty about me. Although, I don't speak French.
(Crowd laughs and applauds.)
We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression. We all want to be heard, but let's acknolwedge the difference between speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention.
The Internet is the superhighway for the id, but showing empathy to others online benefits us all with a better and safer world. We need to communicate online with compassion, consume news with compassion and click with compassion.
Just imagine walking a mile in someone else's headline.
In the past year, the question I've been asked the most is, "Why?" Why now, why was I sticking my head above the parapet? The top-note answer was, and is, because it's time. Time to stop tiptoeing around my past, time to stop living a life of opprobrium and time to take back my narrative.
It's also not just about saving myself. Anyone who is suffering from shame and public humiliation needs to know one thing: You can survive it.
I know it's hard, and it may not be painless, quick or easy, but you can insist on a different ending to your story. Have compassion for yourself. We all deserve compassion and to live both online and off in a more compassionate world.
There's also a more personal and deeper answer that I wanted to share with all of you today, particularly because of your field and the way your influence permeates the culture.
I'm sure you can imagine how much work on myself I've had to do in the past 17 years and how very kind, wise and patient the professionals with whom I've worked have been.
Several years ago, during one such session, where I was desperately trying to make sense of how to move forward in my life, a familiar, iconic image came to mind: a traditionally destructive image, one that normally conjures death and inhumanity. One that represents a terrible time in history. I was shocked.
Now, I want to apologize in advance if anybody finds this culturally insensitive. That's certainly not my intention. It was actually a very sacred moment for me.
What I saw was that iconic image of the atomic bomb test from Bikini Atoll. The vast, looming mushroom cloud, spread out across the sky over the ocean, forefronted by the beach with swaying palm trees. Can you see it?
But this image wasn't exactly the same. It was being repurposed. There was a twist. In my mind's eye, the image was tinted in green, the color associated with the heart chakra. And handwritten across the wide mushroom cloud was the word "compassion."
Let me explain to you what this meant to me personally, how I interpreted it.
My public history was an archetypical story, a story that had been around since the dawn of time. And in this story, I was cast as an incarnation of a modern-day archetype. And because of that, I became seared in the collective consciousness. Are you all still with me?
So I surmised, that as part of the collective consciousness, if people could find a modicum of compassion for what happened to me, rather like the mushroom cloud, compassion would radiate positively for others, other victims of shame and humiliation, other women and other people in society who'd been marginalized.
Compassion can reduce the half life of shame and public humiliation.
And if you're sitting there thinking I sound like a solipsistic, egomaniacal little miss crazy pants, I get it. I questioned my thinking when this happened too. But I realized that it actually didn't have to do with me personally but rather had to do with the role I found myself on in the public stage. It resonated as a truth for me and has been a guiding principle ever since.
Building a more compassionate society is going to be a bilateral exercise between individuals and the brands that represent their aspirations, their values and their truths. People make brands. If people are compassionate, brands will be compassionate in return.
We can lead each other to a more compassionate, more empathic place. We can help change behavior. We can all learn from our mistakes and be more resilient. And we can, together, make a society where the sometimes distancing effect of technology doesn't remove our fundamental humanity.
All of the most vibrant, creative minds in the world are here and here this week. You are the creative engines that will drive forward our culture. Will you help me?
And so, I end where I began. If you were a brand, what brand would you be? Thank you.
To learn more about Ogilvy's partnership with Monica Lewinsky to help prevent online hararssment, visit Upstandr.com.