American author Fran Lebowitz once said: “Being offended is a natural consequence of leaving the house”. Of course, nowadays, you don’t even need to leave the house, or raise your weary head from your drool-sodden pillow. All you have to do is reach for your smartphone each morning, drop into your social network of choice, then wait patiently for someone to point you in the direction of something vaguely controversial.
You could scribble a colourful limerick on the cubicle door of an Outer Hebridian public toilet, and a photo of it would eventually be blown around Twitter on a disapproving wind of collective huffing. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time being offended by things.
Back in June, Adidas managed to offend lots of people after they revealed the new JS Roundhouse Mid trainer on their Adidas Originals Facebook page, which featured a garish orange “shackle-like ankle cuff” that some critics said resembled a symbol of slavery. The online backlash against the company was almost immediate. “How would a Jewish person feel if Nike decided to have a shoe with a swastika on it and tried to claim it was OK in the name of fashion?” said one Facebook user called Kay Tee (Katie, I’m assuming).
Admittedly, Topshop recently had to remove a Slayer t-shirt from sale because it featured the death’s head insignia – “in the name of fashion”. But I strongly doubt that the elephant-sized Goering in the Adidas boardroom is the distinct lack of Nazi-influenced designs in their range of sports-casual footwear. Of course, if they now phase out their famous three stripe trademark and replace it with the double Sig Rune of the Schutzstaffel, those monsters will make me look pretty stupid.
If the ankle chain on the JS Roundhouse Mid had been attached to a leaking bag of clinical waste, which wearers of the trainer had to drag behind them like determined mountaineers pulling the corpse of a frozen friend through deep snow, it still wouldn’t have generated half the commotion that the chain’s link with slavery did.
Ironically, while everyone was busy dribbling their self-important opinions about the “Amistad Originals” (as they were rib-ticklingly dubbed) reports that Olympic-branded shoes and clothing – to be worn by Team GB and Games volunteers – were being manufactured for Adidas in sweatshop conditions in Indonesia went largely undiscussed.
But that didn’t matter. Because eventually, after 3,500 largely negative comments on their Facebook page, Adidas announced that they were cancelling plans to release the trainer. The offended masses of Facebook and beyond had triumphed.
At the start of the year, there was even a mild hoo-ha about the season five promotional poster for Mad Men, which appeared, in all its minimalist glory, on phone booths, bus shelters and subways in New York, and even plunged spectacularly down 12 stories of the Figueroa Hotel in Los Angeles.
The debate about the ad campaign flared up after a New York graphic designer photographed one of the posters on a phone booth for his “daily photo project” before posting it to Flickr, Instagram and Twitter, with the comment: “I’m not too sure how appropriate is this Mad Men poster”. His photo (and opinion) was then widely retweeted, re-posted, analysed, discussed and expanded upon across the Internet.
Because that’s what we do now. Rather than leave our thoughts and feelings bouncing aimlessly off the walls of our minds like an abandoned game of Pong, we routinely disseminate our observations to a global audience of strangers for wider consideration and analysis.
For die-hard fans of the show, the Mad Men poster – striking in its simplicity – was a visual cue to dust off their Dorothy Thorpe Roly Poly glasses, top up their whisky supplies and buy enough cigarettes to turn their lungs into charcoal briquettes. (While for opportunistic scribblers on the New York subway, it was a sure-fire meme.) But for those who weren’t familiar with the show’s distinctive iconography, there was a problem with the poster’s bleak imagery. One New York blogger wrote:
“If you know the show, you smile at the inside joke. If you don’t know the show, you Google “March 25″ and maybe you guess what it is or maybe you think March 25th is National Commit Suicide Day and you start the search for the perfect building to throw yourself off of. Or, if you see it in NYC, you think of [Richard Drew’s ‘The Falling Man’ photo, taken on 9/11].”
Anyone who speculated that the Mad Men poster might have been advertising March 25 as “National Commit Suicide Day” should perhaps have noted other unlikely observances in their calendars, such as ‘International Do A Poo On A Miniature Golf Course Week’ and the widely celebrated ‘Smash Your Nuts With A House Brick Day’. It was a ridiculous argument. Although one blog commenter did dwell on the suicide theme by suggesting that the Mad Men poster could certainly be viewed as insensitive – especially if we all clicked on the handy link he’d provided about the death of Paul Tilley, the former creative director at DDB in Chicago, who jumped out of a window at the Fairmont Hotel window in February 2008 (four months after the finale of Mad Men’s first season).
That’s the thing with the internet, you see. If ever you’re not entirely sure as to why you should be offended by something, there will always be someone willing to take you by the virtual hand to help you to join up the dots – any dots.
Unsurprisingly it was the poster’s ‘falling man’ link that was the most emotive observation. Although it mainly seemed to be bloggers who raised the spectre of 9/11, with some helpfully placing Richard Drew’s iconic photo next to the freefalling Don Draper image – just to make absolutely sure we got the comparison. Similarly, one blogger wrote that the Mad Men posters were in “bad fucking taste”, while helpfully linking those three fucking words to the ‘Falling Man’ Wikipedia page. You can heavily signpost an argument on the internet like nowhere else.
Most recently, a pop-up Benetton store in SoHo, New York, called ‘The Art of Knit’ managed to offend some uptight parents with its ‘Lana Sutra’ installations; yarn-wrapped mannequins contorted into various sexual positions by Cuban-born artist Erik Ravelo. And once again it was a photo posted to Instagram that sparked the debate (albeit without a supporting tirade from the poster about their love of knitwear being forever ruined).
Ravelo’s art installations – remarkably well done, it has to be said – look like two life-size Morphs wrestling on a colourful bed of spilled intestines. However once the images hit the Internet, the debate as to whether the sculptures were offensive and inappropriate played out in everything from the Huffington Post to the deepest, darkest, ‘secret door-knock’ Mumsnet-style forums. Great exposure for Benetton, but a tedious, and now routine, argument to once again bore the shit out of us online.
I don’t think it’s that we’re more easily offended these days, I think it’s just the ease with which we can now trigger or join a debate that’s turned us into blathering bores. After all, we can share an observation with the world with a simple swipe of our index fingers across the smeared screens of our smartphones. Social media has given us a voice online…and we really like the sound of it.