If empathy can be manufactured via product-driven bromides, then the world’s largest beauty-and-personal-care goods supplier will try. The Mean Stinks! campaign radiates pap through a chipper website and a team of motivational speakers who focus on “girl-to-girl” bullying—because “girl bullying is different,” and also, hey, girls wear Secret. “Only girls can end mean,” Mean Stinks! teaches, and here are some of the ways: Paint a mural—a “wall of nice.” Paint your fingernails—blue, the official color of bullying awareness.
Office Depot has turned its back-to-school catalog into a clearinghouse of brave, bully-shaming maxims. There’s a line of “Be Kind” Sharpies in assorted candy colors (25 percent of the proceeds go to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation), not to mention One Direction–branded notebooks bearing “Live Nice” slogans next to photographs of Harry Styles’s dewy, brooding face.
This is corporate marketing culture at its most self-consciously progressive, using its powers to mind-fuck an impressionable young nation for good, for a change.
Two years ago, an Office Depot anti-bullying PSA won a Clio Award. “Cause marketing is good for the cause, for the community, for the consumer, and for the company,” Scott Woodward, SEW Branded’s CEO and chief creative officer, wrote in the Huffington Post. “A win-win is achieved for everyone.”
That “creative officers” have turned bullying prevention into the equivalent of a treacly Care Bears episode comes as no big shock; Secret’s goal, after all, is to get Ooh-La-La Lavender into the pits of our nation’s preteens.
Still, over here in the body politic, the rest of us have to contend with the ineffectual ooze of niceness that anti-bullying campaigns tend to leave in their wake. Take the Bully Project, which was founded by documentary filmmaker and former Obama advertising hand Lee Hirsch with the aim of “changing a culture of bullying into one of empathy and action.” The first step: “Join the movement.” You can tell you are joining a movement because you are required to enter your email address, and because you can purchase from the Bully Project store that universal talisman of awareness-raising: a bright, rubbery bracelet stamped with an inspiriting message à la Livestrong.
In much the same fashion that Office Depot talks of anti-bullying while pressing Sharpies on students, movements like Hirsch’s practice a kind of bait and switch. Action is promised, awareness is promoted—but results are evanescent. Hirsch’s 2012 documentary Bully tells the stories of five American kids who were bullied in heartland public schools; two of them committed suicide. Watch the film, and you get a powerful sock in the gut, but also the sensationalized message that bullying somehow leads directly to teen suicide with no stops in between, along with a growing sense that “bullying” now is sanitized code for gender- or sexuality-based discrimination. Just combat these problems with the familiar liberal toolkit of “awareness,” we’re told, and they will be patiently instructed away, one email form, PSA, or deodorant stick at a time.
Missing from this pat formula is the same ingredient that’s usually AWOL from ignorance-vanquishing liberal campaigns against bias: the awkward fact of unequal social power. The sustained imbalances of power that set seed to bullying don’t spring up by natural accident as troubled teens lash out at school. Instead, they are subtly encouraged by an imperative to turn out graduates who will keep our class and income inequalities safely as they are: wide, cruel, and overawing. Bullies may be the villains in online crusades and co-marketing campaigns across the land, but in the more stalwartly Darwinian reaches of our high school corridors and college campuses, they’re widely adulated success stories.
But if you take the advice of Mean Stinks!—use your nail polish, “Tease Your Hair, Not Your Friends”—you’ll look “nice,” at least, as you’re taunted and pummeled. The nonconfrontational message of Secret’s limited-edition Mean Stinks! body spray is in sync with the product itself: it smells a little like citrus as it dissipates in the air.