The tale about Ceri Rees- an upbeat but apparently mentally challenged woman allegedly repeatedly invited to appear on the X Factor for the sole purpose of ratings-grabbing rejection- has really captured the tabloid imagination yesterday. This has the shape of something that could seriously run and run.
The latest Mail piece by Richard Price, which (in its online form) incorporates nearly 2000 words of surgically targeted attack on the show, including interviews with a hapless carer of Rees’s and a spokesperson for mental health charity Mind. It would make it without question into my list of “top ten examples of stories you don’t want floated about your brand” if I was the kind of person who kept inane lists.
The sincerity and depth of feeling of the coverage, however, marks this out as more than a simple lesson in the devastating consequences of poison publicity. This is not just an unfortunate expose of one woman’s treatment, it is a tailor-made vehicle for injecting awareness of the fundamentally flawed reality show process into the mind of even the least media-savvy member of the public.
The main angle that’s grabbed the popular imagination is not simply that Ceri’s humiliations were repeatedly broadcast, it’s that she was, according to a friend, called up specifically by the show under the false pretext of giving her another serious chance. This was calculated manipulation of reality not only in the comparatively harmless name of national entertainment but in the very harmful sense of distorting and playing off the aspirations of one unfortunate woman.
That this story has broken and run is not the fault of and PR involved with X Factor or Freemantle, it is an inevitability; when the operating narrative of a brand is so poisonous and broken, it is only a matter of time before the public and the media rise up against it. As any brand manager will tell you, there is only so much spin people will swallow.
The whole affair sheds a new light on this week’s ban of Chinese reality property ‘Super Girl’ by the country’s State Administration of Film, Television and Radio (SARFT). I know China is run by a kind of totalitarian administration in drag, but I’m beginning to feel they have the inkling of a point.
The show, which was unceremoniously and ‘voluntarily’ cut from the airwaves under the paper thin premise that it was being punished for exceeding its allotted time slot, is purportedly the first victim of a forthcoming ‘moral purge’ in Chinese television.
The whole affair will undoubtedly (to an extent already has) generate criticism in Western liberal media- clearly one motive for the government move is a suppression of perceived anti-communist sentiment in a programme which glorifies consumption and connects it with democratic choice. Yet the question is begged of whether the destructive practises of reality TV are suitable for any society, regardless of ideology.
While it is true that the show garnered huge audiences, comment on the speed and decisiveness of government reaction invariably comes back to insisting that the mores of reality TV are simply not compatible with the Chinese character.
Whether it comes from a government crackdown or a media backlash, civilisations of all stripes are reacting to the increasingly obvious and undisguisably amoral process behind the brand gloss placed atop reality properties. People will swallow distortion, exaggeration, spin, bluster- these are key
tools of the black art of improperganda. They will not, however, swallow a brand narrative that is totally false, and their rejecting the x factor’s claim about giving Mrs Rees a sporting chance may prove to be the first stage of something bigger.