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Your Shot: How Rolling Stone and Serviceplan Kicked Italian Racists in the Data



Serviceplan Italy ECD Oliver Palmer on how they helped a radical magazine take over 800 racists offline in 10 days

Your Shot: How Rolling Stone and Serviceplan Kicked Italian Racists in the Data
The rise of Europe’s far right in recent years is a story that’s troubled (among many others) the sort of people who work in advertising - socially liberal, open-minded sorts who would be mortified at the mere suggestion that they might hold racist views. 

In Italy, that rise is more tangible and ominous than in many other countries. The country’s general election last year proved that, as Forza Italia, a fairly traditional centre-right party, was overtaken by Lega, former northern secessionists that are now more broadly nationalist. The radical right le Fratelli d'Italia also gained votes. Lega’s Matteo Salvini became interior minister off the back of expressing strong anti-immigrant views that have emboldened Italians with similar views to share them more and more publicly.

Rolling Stone isn’t the sort of publication to stand by and write about music while this goes on and its agency Serviceplan Italy knows it. That’s why they worked together to take action via some cheeky digital activism.

They created a mini site full of the sort of content that would lure people with racist views and once they were there it burned through their data in a matter of seconds. In 10 days they managed to take over 800 racists offline, at least until the end of the month.

LBB’s Alex Reeves spoke to Serviceplan Italy ECD Oliver Palmer to find out how the idea came about. 

LBB> Can you tell me a bit about how racism is expressing itself in Italy right now?

Oliver> I was living and working in Germany until three-and-a-half years ago. I’m half Italian and I moved here with my family to work. Obviously there is also racism in Germany, but it’s a smaller but more radicalised group. You see skinheads, etc.

In Italy through, with Salvini winning the election and becoming interior minister, it became a more popular thing. It’s on a larger scale. You won’t see too many skinheads walking around - that’s an extreme way of racism presenting itself - it’s a broad part of society. When somebody is a minister and says racist things all the time, it legitimises all of these assholes to talk shit, because if your minister does it then you can do it too. 

In every country that’s not doing super well financially you have people that don’t feel like winners and look for somebody who’s guilty for that. That’s a lever for populists - to find a situation that’s not positive for everyone and say ‘I know who’s guilty’.

LBB> What was the conversation like with Rolling Stone that led to this idea? 

Oliver> We asked them what we could do for them, just in general.The thought at the beginning was in a music context. But we quickly found out that Rolling Stone Italy, and generally, is about music but extending it to social topics.

From the beginning, when Lega and Salvini had ambitions to lead not just a small group but the whole of Italy, Rolling Stone wrote openly against it. You have to consider that a newspaper wants to have advertising clients - it has to work financially - so being openly against one of the major parties is a certain risk. They took this risk fully.

The highlight was when Salvini won the elections, they brought out this cover page. They used a rainbow to represent a colourful Italy. They wrote, very explicitly: ‘We are not with Salvini’ (“Noi non stiamo con Salvini”). 

They took a pretty radical position and they got a lot of hatred for this. On one hand some people were patting them on the back and saying ‘good work’. This came from what I would call our peers - people that are open-minded. But other people argued that not being a racist is a matter of luxury. If you are doing well, you have a job, it’s easy to say this. 

Normally a newspaper’s job is when things happen and they write about it. But they’d just made a switch from a paper issue to a digital issue. Being digital they wanted to step further and not only say ‘we have to do something against this’. They really wanted to do something against it. That was the briefing.

LBB> Once you’d decided on the aim, how did you work out what you were actually going to do for Rolling Stone?

Oliver> With every form of extremism - take the shooting in Paris at Charlie Hebdo - everyone in our peer group writes ‘Je suis Charlie’. But there’s a whole other world where people say we are - in Italy it’s called buonisti - people that talk good [but don’t act]. 

Normally something bad happens around the subject of racism and a newspaper writes how bad this is. And all their friends pat them on the back and say ‘great job’ but all the racists laugh in their faces. We try to be politically correct and get disappointed, but it’s their fuel.

The other thing you could do is to say you have to block racist content, but that’s against freedom of speech, against democracy. 

So we developed an idea that wanted to at least do a little harm to them [the racists]. All this stuff is distributed via social media, so we thought what if something blocks this and shows these people if you write a shitty article, if you post ugly comments, ugly videos, something disturbing can also happen to you? You could say it was a hacktivism approach we wanted to take.

LBB> And what insights inspired the idea to burn through racists’ mobile data plans?

Oliver> In Germany you have a flat rate or you have a lot of giga [gigabytes of data]. In Italy it’s on average four to eight gigabytes per month. So with the insights that, firstly, they have that few giga and, secondly, they laugh in our faces when we tell them [why they shouldn't be racist], we thought of something that hurts a little more - something that blocks them technically and efficiently from posting videos. At least until the end of the month.

Rolling Stone said they wanted to act and we thought of something that really has an effect on racists. That’s how the idea grew.

LBB> How did you actually make it happen? Was it a big technical challenge?

Oliver> We took these shitty videos - the most viewed racist videos - we pumped them up, put them on a vlog. On the mobile site they could watch the videos, which we pumped up with digital trash, like looping videos. It was pumped up significantly, but not to the point where the data rate is so high that it blocks the transmission. We found a sweet spot with the highest rate you could get that could really be viewed through mobile devices. 

Mobile sites are normally also viewed on stationary computers over wifi. So on that site we wrote a message that led them to the mobile site that wouldn’t work on a stationary computer.

Then we did targeting for this site through Facebook ads. The aim was not to burn other people’s gigas, but to burn (as sure as possible) racists’ gigas. Normally you’d target a person who’s liked a right-wing page, but that could also be a journalist following this for example, so we took the most viewed racist sites and only if someone liked four or five of these things at the same time [would they see the ad]. We could say that this person really has racist thoughts and intentions. These are maybe the biggest assholes. So we really wanted to focus on them.

LBB> What were the Facebook ads like?

Oliver> The Facebook ads emulated the language and the visual language of these sites, to lure them onto our mobile site. Not the fancy advertising kind of artwork, not the sort of thing art directors like!

We studied exactly what their arguments were. So, ‘make Italy strong again’ kinds of thoughts and especially thoughts against what they call buonisti, who are people that want to be correct, but from their perspective they don’t know shit.

LBB> And you burnt through over 800 racist’s data plans. How do you feel about how it worked?

Oliver> For a small action it had a pretty high output. It was very interesting to see because even when we did the Facebook ads to lure them to our mobile site, we already were confronted with really ugly comments. Obviously they thought they were talking to other racists, so they opened their hearts. It was funny and disgusting at the same time. Funny that they stepped into the trap. Disgusting seeing what they wrote.

Most of the time if you do something creative you get props, people saying ‘great job, well done, nice idea’. In this case it was 50-50. It was full of hatred (‘You pigs! Thieves!’) and on the other hand people reacted really positively.

It was nice to see that people were happy that something really happened. These guys who are threatening people somehow felt threatened themselves. On the other hand, they really freaked out. They called us pigs, buonisti, even communists! It’s ugly and hilarious what came up. 

LBB> What do you hope people will take away from the stunt?

Oliver> I would have loved to put at the end something that allowed people to copy it. But technically, it’s not so difficult.

I’d like the idea to spread the message that we can’t stay here and make comments on our Facebook feeds where all our Facebook friends say ‘fantastic’. Looking at your Facebook timeline you wouldn’t think there’s a problem with racism. I certainly have a sense of sort of malicious satisfaction that I took these guys offline and, in the most banal way, stop them, at least for one month. 

LBB> And what message do you think it conveys about the Rolling Stone brand?

Oliver> When they unveiled the stunt on their site, they wrote about their motivation. They are chronists, writing about things that are happening. In a paper magazine you print it and it’s static. There’s no chance for interaction. For Rolling Stone, it was good to show that going digital doesn’t just save money on printing, but [it means] you can really act. That was their aim - to really DO something, changing from writing to acting.

I think racists hate them even more now. And Rolling Stone love that. That’s THEIR definition of rock and roll.

LBB> Anything else you’d like to add on the subject?

Oliver> You know the Eurovision Song Contest? Italians have their own big festival like that called Sanremo. It’s important for pop music. This year an Italian guy won called Mahmood. One of his parents is Egyptian but he’s an Italian. When he won, Salvini said he wished a “more Italian” person had won. Imagine if your political leader speaks like this. These are things that not even Trump would say! If someone feels so comfortable to make a large part of society comfortable speaking and acting this way, it’s not enough to just post nice things on Facebook. You have to kick them in the balls, take them offline and show that we’re not paper tigers. We are also strong.
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SERVICEPLAN GERMANY, Fri, 10 May 2019 16:00:37 GMT