Race, Sex, and Self-Disclosure–Social Media and Our Authentic Self

Starbucks Annual Meeting

Starbucks’ “Race Together” slogan aims to get people talking about the subject.

They used to call social security “the third rail of American politics” for the reason that “Anyone who tries to touch it gets electrocuted,” a quote attributed to an aide to the former and late Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Kirk O’Donnell.

It may now be expanded to race and sex, as evidenced by the virulent social media reaction to the  Starbucks campaign, “Race Together” to start a conversation about race initiated by Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz this week or comments on in-vitro fertilization by the fashion designers Dolce & Gabbana as producing “synthetic babies.”

Stefano Gabbano and Domenico Dolce of  Dolce & Gabbana,  the Italian luxury industry fashion house.

Each party, two fashion designers and the world’s largest coffeehouse company, have dipped their toes in different ways into the social phenomenon of self-presentation, albeit with different motives and expressed intentions.

But both have hit third rails in their own way.

Dolce & Gabbana, both the individuals and the fashion house, have drawn vitriol and backlash from such celebrities as Elton John, fashion designer Victoria Beckham, singer Ricky Martin, TV reality show host Andy Cohen, director Ryan Murphy, and former tennis star Martina Navratilova, including a call for a boycott of the design firm’s clothing.  A clinical professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business, called the Dolce & Gabban comments “brain dead.” He said, “This isn’t shooting yourself in the foot, this is taking a machine gun and spraying bullets all over your feet.”

Mr. Gabbana said in response, “We firmly believe in democracy and the fundamental principle of freedom of expression that  upholds it.  We talked about our way of seeing reality, but  it was never our intention to judge other people’s choices.”

Sure sounded intentional.

Starbuck’s CEO said he had launched the initiative to start a conversation about race int the wake of racially-imbued events this past summer in Ferguson, MO, and others around the nation where white policemen, in altercations or struggles with black citizens, fatally shot or choked them to death, as occurred in New York City, an intention shared by the President of the United States and the U.S. Attorney General, among other government and community leaders.  Mr. Schultz called the campaign a pathway of opportunity.

Starbucks employees, called baristas, have expressed concern and confusion over the campaign.  One young barista named Jaime Prater said, “This isn’t the forum to have these discussions” about being asked to start conversations about race with customers by writing things on coffee cups and using stickers. He agrees it’s an important topic but, he says, “It’s a very, very involved and in-depth conversation that needs a lot of time devoted to it. Having your baristas engaging in those conversations, it puts them in a very difficult position.”  Forty percent of Starbucks’ workforce are of color.

Evidently social media lit up over the Starbucks campaign as well.  The attacks grew so hostile that the Starbucks senior vice president of global communications temporarily deleted his Twitter account  on Monday following harsh comments as well as video parodies of customer interactions with baristas.

Starbucks employee Jaime Prater is himself half black and is also gay. “That’s something that I deal with in my life, it’s part of who I am,” he said. But the workplace is not somewhere he wants to be starting discussions — he said he worries that the initiative will invite uncomfortable remarks. That may also be a concern for the 40 percent of the company’s workforce that is of color.

Image result for larry david comic persona

Larry David being interviewed on “60 Minutes”about what makes him tick.

Larry David, co-founder of “Seinfeld,” founder and star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and writer, producer, and star of the Broadway smash hit, “Fish in the Dark,” is an example of another kind of self-presentation, the kind he meant to hide but could not, demonstrating what Penn sociologist Erving Goffman called revealing our “backstage self” instead of our “onstage self” in our “presentation of self in everyday life.”

David, whose comic persona as an unfiltered, self-centered, irascible, cantankerous and and norm-breaking Hollywood pro on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” meant to keep that public onstage character in tact and separate from his off-stage “authentic” one that he kept describing as “I’m just a guy like everyone else,” except no one thinks he is , including interviewer Charlie Rose.  David went on “60 Minutes” to promote his Broadway play and, to his utter embarrassment and chagrin, ended up revealing just who he really is and what makes him tick.  A tantrum by the comedian followed his revelation because he was so mad at himself.  It comes at 43:33 minutes on a 55-minute interview.  He almost made it, but not quite.  “Someone’s got to edit me, it might as well be me,”  he told Rose when Rose asked him why he wasn’t being totally forthcoming about what regrets he had about his life.  But he failed to hide them.


What does all this mean?  Do the three examples have anything common?

I think so.  They speak to our intentions and how we reveal them.  Ten years ago, before the real advent of social media, if Dolce & Gabbana uttered a comment potentially inflammatory about lifestyles, it might have been picked up by a fashion editor and/or celebrity reporter and been tucked away in a gossip column.  And the public’s response would have been isolated and probably contained with nary of call for a world boycott.

Starbucks’ campaign might have garnered TV advertising media response and water cooler buzz that would probably have been positive, as Coke did when it released its now iconic commercial about peace and harmony in the 1970s featuring the song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).” But certainly not make front page news and create the kind of negative reaction it did when it led Twitter trends this past week.

And Larry David would probably have gotten news pickup if Barbara Walters Special interview had featured him and  she got to him as Charlie Rose did on “60 Minutes,” that’s for sure.

The question, “What were you thinking?” is relevant because it is the filter that keeps our onstage, public, stylized presentation of self within bounds of accepted behavior and those that expose our more personal, unfiltered, less sociable, unrehearsed self emerge.  One is not necessarily better than the other, especially when the intention are positive, like the Starbucks campaign was meant to be, but indeed both have consequences in the age of social media, and we are seeing them in each of the examples mentioned above.

This entry was posted in Advertising campaigns, Branding, Case Studies, Comedy, Managing Yourself, Privacy, Psychology, Social Media, Social Media & Psychology, Television, Twitter, Uncategorized, Voice. Bookmark the permalink.

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