Saturday, March 5, 2011

Exploiting Charlie

Over the last week or two, you'd have to have been living under a rock not to have witnessed at least part of the circus that is Charlie Sheen's public life.

If you're just crawling out now, here's a selection of his recent statements.

At first, Sheen's behaviour seemed to indicate a huge ego and, possibly, a huge quantity of drugs/alcohol. People followed along as he lashed out, entertained by his anger and unreasonableness and hubris, waiting anxiously for the next installment of his tirade - as well as his inevitable crash back to rehab.

But as this week progressed, public perception seemed to change a bit. We started to hear medical experts on the newsmagazine shows speculating about frontal lobe issues that could be driving Sheen's manic beviour, and the entire affair started to feel pretty uncomfortable for some.

Were we watching someone self-destruct before our eyes? Would Charlie Sheen be the next celebrity about whom we said "it was obvious, he was clearly sick, why didn't somebody do something to help him," the way we did about Michael Jackson?

For the networks, though, it was an opportunity too good to pass up.

The mainstream media tripped over themselves to come up with the latest content to feed social media: it was the first time I was conscious of watching the mainstream media work consciously to create viral video.

It helped that Sheen was more than willing to help them all out: it seemed he was giving everyone an exclusive. The guy can't help himself - it's part of his illness/personality/addiction/whatever it is we're watching him suffer from right now.

I was discussing this my friend Sherri Vokey this week, and she said it best: "it's like we're watching an episode of Intervention, but no-one's intervening."

Personally, it all gives me a sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach. I've never been able to watch shows like Intervention, Hoarders, name the watch-the-sick-person program -- I'm not entertained by other people's suffering.

But I understand the business.

The issues manager in me is starting to get nervous, though.

I get it that the networks have to be on top of this story - audiences don't seem to be able to get enough of it.

But the issues manager in me has to wonder what they'll be saying if, say, he ends up hurting others or himself in his delusion. They were pleased to report on the contribution Michael Jackson's entourage made to his death; if Charlie Sheen's public "meltdown" really is that, will they accept a share in the blame?

Will the rest of us?

On a related topic, I caught this tweet from the American Red Cross this week.

In PR classes we talk about creating newsworthiness/buzz by tying our messages to stories in the news - clearly, that's what the Red Cross is doing. And it caught my attention, so good for them!

Except I hope for their sake (as well as for his, of course) that Charlie Sheen recovers.

I wouldn't want to be the spokesperson for a humanitarian aid organization that had exploited the rantings of a person suffering from mental illness for publicity, if that illness caused him to hurt someone or himself (more than he already has, of course).


  1. The viewing majority love the spectacle that Sheen has become. I almost feel it is the public's failing that we give this much attention to "famous people's problems." Entertainment news has turned into reduce-speed, drive-by accident scene reporting.

    Networks simply LOVE the ratings that come along with Sheen or they wouldn't feature him. I predict he'll be working again by Spring, or sooner. E! network or TLC is probably creating a reality show behind the scenes as I write this.

    The only good that can come from this is that the current attention pointed at Sheen may result in a reality check. He's an egomaniac who has spent too much time in front of the camera and has become his TV character, Charlie Harper. It's the world he identifies with and one the viewing audience loves him for (and has brought him the most success), so why wouldn't he try to live it out in reality?

    He's become consumed by it.

  2. I think you're right, Greg - the media wouldn't be covering this so closely if audiences didn't want it.