BY JIMMY RAYNE
From the relatively demure days of Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando to the more recent ‘shock jock’ era of Jeremy Clarkson and Kyle Sandilands, media have always had a fascination with celebrities and controversy. The evolution of technology and modern-day marketing has made it easy for just about anyone to headline a story, provided there is a common payoff for those involved. Controversy is seen as an opportunity to capitalise on a situation where media hype and clever marketing can temper and even manipulate the public’s perception into accepting and even forgiving behaviour that would normally be seen as unacceptable for the average person.
We are now in an age where agents and publicists are no longer the secret behind the success of a talent. It’s an age where some, like Max Markson or Max Clifford, happen to be as famous as some of their clients. Many celebrities are part of a marketing process that goes well beyond a simple promotion. Instead of being known for just their talents, too many celebrities leave little to the imagination as totheir real potential as a personality. People can now become famous from clever marketing without much, if any talent at all. Getting interviews with many modern-day celebrities is near-impossible without having to go through a list of demands.
Reality TV is a magnet for those seeking to demonise the cult of celebrity. As Professor Alan Knight of Sydney’s University of Technology points out, most reality TV is a scripted process. “People are doing PhD Research on reality TV,” he says. “Most people who watch reality TV don’t realise that many of the people that appear on most of the programs are actually subject to psychological tests. So in actual fact, they can find people that are unstable and are likely to fight with each other.
“Furthermore, many people don’t realise that reality TV is not reality at all. They might shoot ten hours but they might show only ten minutes, and then they might stitch together the confrontations out of context, therefore creating almost fictional characters. People don’t realise that reality TV is anything but reality, it’s just some entertainment for the feeble-minded.”
But in an era where we are conditioned to think anyone can make it as a celebrity, can we really point the finger of blame at celebrities who rely on controversy to advance their wealth and personal interests? “The celebrities get to actually sell their products and the journalists get to sell the bullshit,” Professor Knight says. But, he adds: “It’s a mutually destructive relationship. In some ways it degrades the public by assuming that they have a very low intelligence. Poor quality entertainment based on confrontational exploitation has always been with us, before Roman times. They used to feed people to lions; now they just put them on Big Brother.”
Moreover, the level of interest that can be generated sometimes borders on overwhelming. Invasion of privacy can be a negative factor that arises at times. Such circumstances are usually met with caution. But it is not uncommon for celebrities mostly famous for their celebrity, such as Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, to insist on putting a positive spin on even the worst of situations in order to capitalise on success that has come through marketing instead of talent.
Critics have pointed to the media as a crucial denominator in dumbing-down public discourse. And with that dumbing-down comes the need to set oneself apart – which paves the way for more and more outrageous and degrading stunts. One of the most notorious cases to fit this description was the hoax played by Australian DJs Michael Christian and Mel Greig on British nurse Jacintha Saldanha, which served as a dark reminder that lines are all-too-often blurred in the ethical realm at the nexus of media and celebrity.
The people behind such behaviour often have a different agenda to what meets the eye. With money, ratings and sponsorship seen as the bottom line for most organisations, the Max Marksons of this world are often forced to seek many different avenues in order to generate public interest in whatever it is that they’re trying to promote. More often than not, situations are staged so that the message they’re trying to get across appears to be genuine. The romantic relationship of Peter Andre and Elena Rivas is an example where both parties chose to exploit themselves following the fading interest of their respective high profile divorces. They were introduced to each other via the agency that manages them both. The news outlets and photographers that followed them around for the next five months knew about every public and private function they were attending as a couple, largely thanks to their management team who would let the paparazzi know before hand.
Not entirely coincidentally, it was the inconvenience of an upcoming world tour for Andre that was the reason for their amicable split.
Although some might view this as unacceptable PR, one must understand that money cannot be made without a market that’s in demand for such antics. The very people that orchestrate the increase in money, ratings and sponsorship often also conduct surveys and research to determine what their audience enjoys and prefers as entertainment. In hindsight the questionable morals and ethics behind many staged events needs to come back to the consumer and what their demands are at times.
Questionable PR has always been scrutinised by most people. Recently there has been much hysteria in the press recently about the prospect of increased regulation. In fact, although commercial radio and television have been subject to the auspices of a regulator for more than half a century, existing regulation of the media is widely regarded as consisting of a hollow threat. “People are still doing things on radio and getting away with it,” Professor Knight says. “The regulator is pretty toothless, but people are constrained by things like defamation. That’s part of the problem with this nasty entertainment – some of the actors start believing their role. Commercial radio was like this 30 years ago. Basically they knew that they would boost ratings by being obnoxious to particular people, so they do it.”
The most concerning issue of late though has been the harassment and abuse of celebrities through social media – and the democratisation of that abuse.
“It’s not just the nutters behind the microphone that you’ve got to contend with – there are nutters out there with computers as well,” Professor Knight adds. “In that sense, the whole process of celebrity has become democratised. What has changed is that the media, through new media, has become much more democratic and much more open. So it has become a lot easier to express ideas. That’s the upside of free speech. The downside of free speech is that there are a lot of crazy and malicious people out there.”