Ryan Holiday “sex sells” is dead, long live “outrage sells”

Ryan Holiday “sex sells” is dead, long live “outrage sells”

How does that old adage go, “Sex sells”? I always wondered what would take its place. Now, I think we know. The new adage appears to be: “Outrage sells”.

In this excellent article, Ryan Holiday talks about how he created a marketing campaign in 2009 on a shoestring budget about a fictional internet blogger Tucker Max in order to promote an independent film. They then proceeded to troll the public and our institutions on their way to huge sales. They reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, sold out college bus tours, and made millions in ticket, dvd, and book sales. Often using our public institutions and media against each other – all for publicity.

“But my favorite was the campaign in Chicago—the only major city where we could afford transit advertising. After placing a series of offensive ads on buses and the metro, from my office I alternated between calling in angry complaints to the Chicago CTA and sending angry emails to city officials with reporters cc’d, until ‘under pressure,’ they announced that they would be banning our advertisements and returning our money. Then we put out a press release denouncing this cowardly decision.

I’ve never seen so much publicity. It was madness.”

It all worked. Ryan Holiday published all the manipulation he did and how uncontrollably successful it was in his book, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. He’s been approached by numerous people saying that this book is now ‘their bible’.

He describes his book thusly:

You’ve seen it all before. A malicious online rumor costs a company millions. A political sideshow derails the national news cycle and destroys a candidate. Some product or celebrity zooms from total obscurity to viral sensation. What you don’t know is that someone is responsible for all this. Usually, someone like me.

I’m a media manipulator. In a world where blogs control and distort the news, my job is to control blogs-as much as any one person can. In today’s culture… Blogs like Gawker, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post drive the media agenda. Bloggers are slaves to money, technology, and deadlines.Manipulators wield these levers to shape everything you read, see and watch-online and off. Why am I giving away these secrets? Because I’m tired of a world where blogs take indirect bribes, marketers help write the news, reckless journalists spread lies, and no one is accountable for any of it.

He talks about how outrage can be leveraged with ruthless exactness:

Niche players and polarizing personalities are only ever going to be interesting to a small subgroup. While this might seem like a disadvantage, it’s actually a huge opportunity: Because it allows them to leverage the dismissals, anger, mockery, and contempt of the population at large as proof of their credibility. Someone like Milo or Mike Cernovich doesn’t care that you hate them—they like it. It’s proof to their followers that they are doing something subversive and meaningful. It gives their followers something to talk about. It imbues the whole movement with a sense of urgency and action—it creates purpose and meaning.

While many worried about “normalizing” their behavior, that’s the one thing they don’t want to happen. The key tactic of alternative or provocative figures is to leverage the size and platform of their “not-audience” (i.e. their haters in the mainstream) to attract attention and build an actual audience.

Let’s say 9 out of 10 people who hear something Milo says will find it repulsive and juvenile. But let’s say he can acquire massive amounts of negative publicity by pissing off people in the media? Well now all of a sudden someone is absorbing the cost of this inefficient form of marketing for him. If a CNN story reaches 100,000 people, that’s 90,000 people all patting themselves on the back for how smart and decent they are. They’re just missing the fact that the 10,000 new people that just heard about Milo for the first time. The same goes for when you angrily share on Facebook some godawful thing one of these people has said. The vast majority of your friends rush to agree, but your younger cousin has a dark switch in his brain go on for the first time.

His solution is an observation:

I realize there is legitimate fear of normalizing repulsive behavior. I’m not suggesting anyone give credence to real Nazi doctrine. However, historically, it’s usually true that banning and blocking usually has the opposite of its intended effect. Effective counterinsurgency usually involves bargaining, partnering and the reestablishment of norms—not hardlines.

In this, I think he’s hit the nail on the head. We must admit these things are out there. But instead of trying to silence them, ban them, shut them up, and break their windows – we must engage and defuse them. We may not like it, but other tactics only pour gas on the fire.

Personally, I think this is where a person could take a few notes on how God engaged with our broken humanity. I hear a fellow went out teaching this and they wrote a lot of that down in a book somewhere… 🙂

A few points to consider on that front:

  • The Christian always separates the infinite worth and beauty of the individual human person who is “created in the image of God” from their sin. This can be brutally hard at times – especially when that person wishes you real harm. This is how evil is disarmed. It is hard to hate others when someone sees the infinite beauty and possibility in you that they often do not see themselves. Hate is disarmed by love.
  • The cross is the center of the Christian life. It means dying to yourself to do what is best for others. As Louis CK said: The only time you should look at another’s bowl is to see if they have enough, not if you got your ‘fair’ share. It may require you to turn the other cheek. It might even cost your life as in the case of Christ.
  • A steadfast peace in your heart that comes from deep and daily relationship with God. With this relationship, cultivated in daily prayer and silence, you find something that can endure any trial and bring peace to any situation.
  • Trust in Christ that when you follow him in this wisdom, you will be taken care of. I have seen this many times in my own life and the life of my friends who have become priests. It may not be what you expect, but those that follow Christ are never abandoned.
  • Speaking only the truth. Without hyperbole, exaggeration, or outright lies. Let your ‘Yes’ mean yes, and your ‘No’ mean no. Anything else is from the evil one.

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