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“Fuck the Poor” Video

A short “Fuck the Poor” video (here on YouTube, Publicis, Unit9 and other websites) went viral on social media in 2014 and consequently received many awards -- especially for “engaging” the public. This 1.20 minute video was made by the Publicis London media company (of the Publicis Groupe, one the four largest global media and advertising companies) for the Pilion Trust charity (which supports homeless, poverty-stricken and otherwise vulnerable persons) in April 2014. It was designed to raise donations for the latter. Described as “a social experiment on the people of London to see if we really do care about those who are less fortunate”, it was summarized thus in the Publicis press release of 7 April 2014:

A man wearing a sign saying: “Fuck the poor” was sent out to the streets of the capital as part of a campaign for the charity by Publicis. Londoners were secretly filmed taking the man to task for the offensive statement.

Afterwards, the man flipped his sign over so that it read: “Help the poor” and he proceeded to ask for donations -- but this time people completely ignored him.

The press release also quoted Savvas Panas, the Chief Executive of the Pilion Trust: “We understand that some may be shocked by this footage. We are more offended however, that people across the United Kingdom are living in adverse poverty." Also quoted was Andy Bird of Publicis: “we helped them to make a film that highlighted the discrepancy between peoples’ attitude when confronted with injustice and bigotry about poverty, and then their apathy when asked directly to help do something about it - donate.” We are, clearly, not poor but care about them poor people, unlike them uncaring but not poor people.

The comments that the man with the sign attracted in the “fuck the poor” section went as follows in numbered sequence -- by different persons, some overlapping as noted:

1. What do you mean ‘fuck the poor’?

               [Man with board, jeeringly: Fuck the poor! Fuck ‘em!]

2. That’s disgusting!

3. What’s all this?

4. What do you think we should do?

5. Just get a job if you ain’t got a place to live.

6. Jeez. Fuck me as well, yah?

7. Don’t just hit rock bottom, there’s a reason for that.

8. Is this a joke?

9. You should be thinking of a better way to get them off the street.

10. The guy’s cold down there, give’m a blanket.

11. I’ve been homeless for two years! [Same as 1]

12. Got no fucking heart.

13. I don’t respect that at all.

14. You’re just standing there like an idiot!

15. You don’t think that’s too far?

16. That is offensive. [A policeman]

17. Fuck that!  [Same as 1]

These responses give, amidst their carefully edited and spliced appearance, some indication of spontaneous responses to the statement “fuck the poor”. Maybe. It is difficult to say how spontaneous or mediated by calculated editing these are. A Media Ethics Committee advisor might ask whether informed consent was sought after these respondents were tricked into becoming unpaid actors in this video (or were they paid?). Some of the faces are blanked out, so it is probable that their consent was sought and mostly given. If so, they are unlikely to have consented if they had realised that they were being set up to be portrayed as hypocrites who affect concern for the poor but are actually indifferent.

As might be expected of such a statement, the responses are fairly varied and the manifold nuances of fuck blur the picture. Insofar as the statement is deliberately meant to cause offence, it is difficult to tell to what extent the anti-poor sentiment in itself offended or the choice of terms (fuck) offended. If the statement had been a more quaint “Down with the poor” or “Damn the poor” perhaps that would have offended as much. But that ambiguity in the trigger for offence is perhaps deliberate here: the idea is to cause offence, and then to construe it, whatever the reason for offence, as hypocrisy about the poor. It seems that statements 2 (perhaps) and 16 are responses which take offence at the choice of terms – the person who says the first has her face blurred (probably hadn’t given consent to feature here), and the other comes from a Defender of Public Order and Decency, a policeman, who is probably trained to take issue with "offensive language". The others who were offended – notably the speaker of statements 1, 11 and 16, and those of statement 6 and maybe 12 – present more interesting instances. They were obviously offended because they regard themselves as poor, one has been homeless, and find in this a direct attack on themselves rather than the poor in general out there. The video was evidently made to stoke the guilt of the not-poor; to check, as the press release said, “if we really do care about those who are less fortunate”. Unfortunately, the poor, who find it difficult to identify with that we, are far from being strangers to the streets of London. Ironically, their fucks – statements 6, 12 and particularly 17 – are the browbeaten protests of those whom the statement fucks, ostensibly (for us) to rescue people like them.

For the rest, there’s mainly bewilderment. Some – statements 3, 4, 15 – are searching, trying to understand the thrust of the statement, what does that fuck mean? A couple (statements 5 and 8) wonder whether this isn’t a humorous or bitterly ironic use of fuck; others (statements 7, 9, 10, 13) take the sentiment in a pragmatic spirit, registering no offence in the fuck and offering poker-faced explanations; and one expresses impatient concern for the man with the board himself (statement 14). In their own way, each expressed concerns which were perhaps mainly about the wider context, wherein the government’s austerity policies have made life particularly difficult for the poor. Those who took this statement pragmatically were perhaps expressing an ongoing concern – were already pondering whether “fuck the poor” is an establishment slogan (of, as Eisman/Lewis put it, the “system”).

So much for people enunciating/hearing “fuck the poor” in the midst of everyday life, passing on a street in London, on the way from somewhere to somewhere. Then there’s this video itself, watched by over 50,000 on YouTube alone (as this is written), recipient of many awards (Cannes Lions, D&AD Pencils, One Show, British Arrow, Creative Circle, Clio), bearing the logo of Pilion and the creative credits of Publicis London (the latter gets the awards) – labelled the “Fuck the Poor” campaign. At this level, the fuck contributes to a resonant publicity logo, a memorable advertisement brand. It contributes to making money – for the charitable purposes of Pilion, and, perhaps more importantly, by enhancing the company profile of Publicis (Pilion was probably not charged for this charitable gesture from Publicis, but I am guessing here).

The effectiveness of fuck in marketing a product recalls the enormously successful FCUK (French Connection UK) logo since 1999 and the confused controversies it generated. While prickliness about fuck has diminished since, its juxtaposition with an object of obvious sympathy (those biblical camels, “the poor”), redolent with religious and altruistic norms, is apt to grab attention – has grabbed attention. In this instance, that provocation was cushioned for Publicis by being sort of hidden behind the obviously virtuous activities of Pilion. But, as advertisement which is indistinguishable from activism and charity, it works to Publicis’s advantage, as an advertisement for Publicis. The austerity context helped too, its disaffections garnered towards not just stoking guilt for Pilion but raising Publicis’s profile. The video has more than an edge of the kind of ambient advertising which various media and creative arts companies have undertaken successfully, melding street art or performance art with product promotion. Publicis London has much experience of this sort of charitable work for charities which enhances its reputation and does its market profile good. It has conducted several similar campaigns for the Depaul Trust UK, a charity for homeless youth (in one case while simultaneously publicising the iPhone6 launch in 2014). Such creativity -- charity, performance art, campaign of social conscience and brand publicity all rolled into one -- finds it expedient, every now and then, to say fuck.

Suman Gupta, September 2015