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The art of controversial PR

Even in his lifetime the work of John Williams Waterhouse rarely made much of a stir in the art world. He is often classed as a pre-Raphaelite although he was painting his scenes of Arthurian chic long after the brotherhood were fashionable. Nobody would have noticed the sudden removal from display of his work Hylas And the Nymphs had not the Manchester Art Gallery sent out an announcement that it had done just that in order to “prompt debate”.

The painting, which features a handsome, muscle-clad youth being seduced by topless water nymphs, was not a particularly obvious offering for the #metoo bonfire. It might be that the gallery didn’t fancy taking down any of those fruity Gauguins. In any case an outcry erupted. Eminent columnists – many of whom would not be seen dead with a Waterhouse print- wrote powerful condemnations. The charge of artistic censorship was refuted by the gallery. Indeed the truth is far more boring. They had an upcoming exhibition to promote of contemporary artist Sonia Boyce, known for her critique of objectification of women and cultural outsiders, and milked the censorship argument for the mentions it could get. The intention was never to hide Waterhouse -Hylas is now back on display- but to tap into the passions stirred by a controversy.

For the promotor -long before their vocation became consolidated into the respectably anodyne title of ‘Public Relations’- the manipulation of controversy is the lifeblood of publicity. Controversy is situated somewhere in between an offence, which is personally felt, and outrage, which is viewed as an objective wrong. The objection thrives off division, argument and ambiguity; its battle lines are drawn to serve an agenda. Controversy is constructed to attract attention; however, as the POTUS shows controversy is also useful for shifting attention away from certain investigations to OMG YOU WONT BELIEVE WHAT HE JUST TWEETED. In the UK one of the most flagrant practitioners of controversial politics is of course Nigel Farage.

It seemed to work well for Ukip in its pre-referendum insurgency but it would take an extremely adept string-puller to maintain that approach while also aiming to professionalise. Poor Henry Bolton, Ukip’s very own Elmer Fudd, was not one of these and when the imbroglio over his girlfriend’s racists texts arose his message was: “Be vewy vewy quiet, I’m weforming Ukip”. Arguably Ukip is now entering a phase of non-controversy- not because they’re any less barmy but rather because the media’s attitude to the party since the referendum has drifted towards the parodic. The true enemy of controversy is ridiculousness.

It isn’t just Ukip. In the age of Trump one may wonder if we have reached a moment of peak controversy, desensitised to its effect. I would put it differently: rather than being overwhelmed by genuine provocation we have mixed up our categories. Every offence has become a controversy worthy of notice. Thanks to social media people with no formal training in public relations can broadcast their complaints, no matter how trivial, to an audience to rival that of most nationals. A few critical tweets directed at a trailer to an upcoming Peter Rabbit film, which features an animated child with a blackberry allergy being pelted with them by a gang of bunnies, escalated into a viral campaign and led to a grovelling apology by the studio. Christopher Plummer is now on stand-by in bunny ears.

It shouldn’t surprise us that brands have attempted to cash in on the offence economy. Recently Poundland received a slapdown from the Advertising Standards Authority over its “Elves behaving badly” social campaign. They justified their graphics- which featured santa’s little helpers playing strip poker and tea-bagging Barbie- as boundary pushing. In their minds they were being controversial. What some marketers have realised is that with polarising products and campaigns, they can use the backlash – real or sincere – to hijack the media and get attention. Despite the complaints and some expression of regret the discount retailer racked up its most successful trading since 1990.

The example of the Poundland campaign does little to redeem the image of the publicists as evil propagators of sexist imagery and bigoted attitudes. In defence of the ignoble profession I concede we do sometimes get our hands dirty sifting through the worst of humanity. But there is an art to the creation of genuine controversy, one that doesn’t so much instil division as rummage around in the already existing fault lines and hypocrisies of our culture.

Like satire the making of a controversy can expose hypocrisies on either side of an argument. The quintessential story is when PR supremo Harry Reichenbach was hired by an art dealer who had acquired 2000 copies of a print by middling impressionist Paul Chabas. “September Morn”, which features a naked woman demurely bathing in a lake, had won a number of respectable awards when it was exhibited in France in 1912.

For Reichenbach there was nothing more deadening than institutional respectability. He organised a complex sting which involved placing it in the window of the dealer’s New York gallery and contacting a prominent local Anti-Vice campaigner Anthony Comstock to visit the site. Reichenbach also hired a flock of children at $.50 apiece to act out a pantomime of frenzied sexual excess. When Comstock arrived the kids played out their part to perfection and he demanded the gallery owner remove the offending item. The owner refused and the disagreement went to courts and became a nationwide sensation.

Needless to say, the gallery had to order more prints. The greater significance of the stunt was the verdict of Direct Appellant Court 1914 which ruled in favour of the gallery’s right to display the print but did not stop short of calling out Reichenbach. In a rare moment of judicial insight into the PR world the court commented that while the picture was not indecent “the same may not be said of much of the exploiting to which it has been subjected”. The curtain was lifted and both sides exposed as indecent attention seekers.

Comstock and his anti-vice brigade were arguably easy targets, their campaign a frequent source of parody in the early years of Hollywood. But for the publicist subtly is rarely helpful. Reichenbach knew that to get the message out he needed loud and colourful aggregators- something that is as true today as it was in 1914. For a controversy to maintain interest you need to ensure your targets continue to feed the beast. Offence, on the other hand, is self-immolating.

Shutting down debate, its only momentum is found in ratcheting up the abuse and vulgarity. Ruben Östlund’s Palm d’Or winning film The Square, which gets its UK release next month, is a powerful depiction of what happens whe offence becomes an end in itself. The dark comedy depicts a Swedish gallery that is curating an exhibition that asks the viewer to consider the morality of their participation in the world at large. All very nice, their PR agency tells them, but not enough to get media attention. What they need is a viral social campaign that “cuts through” and gets people sharing.

Through misguided faith in these neo-Reichenbachs the gallery commissions a video featuring a blond haired-refugee child –“because people care more when they’re blond”- getting blown to pieces in slo-mo. The clip goes crazy, the media come knocking and gallery heads roll. This is the image of controversy in 2018: a viral video and youtube getting in touch to ask if you’d be interested in ad revenue partnerships.

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