Would You Repeat What You Say Online To Someone's Face?

Inside BBDO New York's harrowing, and heartwarming, "In Real Life" PSA

When you’re sitting behind a computer, it’s easy to say mean and hurtful things about someone else on social media because you never see the pain you cause. But would you ever say those things to someone’s face? And how would you react if you heard someone else spewing hateful remarks offline? Would you do something about it?

A new anti-bullying PSA called “In Real Life” is designed to get us thinking about these questions by dragging the nastiness that plagues social media into everyday life, staging scenes in public that find bullies loudly picking on targets like a gay couple and a Muslim woman.

All of the bullies and the targets in the video are actors.

All of the horrible things they say are taken straight from social media posts.

And all the people who intervene and put a stop to the bullying are compassionate folks who have no idea they are being filmed for a PSA.

BBDO produced the video after Monica Lewinsky, who has become an anti-bullying activist in recent years and famously gave a TED Talk on the subject of public shaming and cyberbullying, came to the agency in search of a way to educate people about cyberbullying during October’s National Bullying Prevention Month.

“Instead of just telling people, this happens online and is not nice, we wanted to do a social experiment to prove our point—to show people how awkward and weird and out of place it sounds when you take a bullying comment from social media and put it out in the real world,” says Bianca Guimaraes, BBDO associate creative director/art director. “When you actually say it out loud, everybody cringes.”

In Real Life #BeStrong

In one of the scenarios, a man approaches two men sitting at a table in a café and tells them, “I think gay people are sick, and you guys should just kill yourselves. Just end your miserable existence.”

In another, a woman goes up to a Muslim woman in a park and says, “You know what? All of you Muslims, you all need to go back to the hellholes you’re from.”

It really can’t be stressed enough that each and every one of the horrible comments made by the bullies in the video are real comments taken from social media. “It was a hard exercise going through all the online bullying comments,” Guimaraes acknowledges.

But the task certainly validated the necessity of the PSA. There is no shortage of cruelty on social media.

Lewinsky told the BBDO creative team something notable when they met her. “We were all talking about her experiences, and she was saying, ‘I can count on my two hands the number of times that someone said something mean to my face,’ ” Guimaraes says.

But it’s a different story on social media.

Freelance director Win Bates, with support from BBDO’s in-house production outfit BBDO Studios, shot “In Real Life” all within a 10-block area of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn at a café, on a street corner and in a park. (He also shot a scene at a bus stop, but it didn’t make it into the final cut.)

Much of what we see was shot by long lens HD cameras hidden in vans or behind trees a block or so away from the scene. “That enabled us to be far enough away that it wasn’t obvious but still get decent looking footage and coverage,” Bates says, noting he had set up GoPros in the café for the scenarios shot there, but that footage didn’t make the final cut because “we liked the long lens feel.”

Bates and the agency team spent much of the shoot sitting in a van watching the various scenarios play out on a monitor, and it was stressful because no matter how well you set up a situation, you really never know what you’re going to get when you do a hidden-camera shoot.

“The morning of the shoot, we were thinking, this could go one of two ways—this could either go really well, or it could not,” says Roberto Danino, BBDO associate creative director/copywriter.

Thankfully, it went well because people showed they do care.

“We were amazed by how many people stepped up. Every time we did a scenario, somebody was there to say something, and it was not just one person. It was multiple people,” Danino says, noting that there was one intervention that was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking.

It happened when an actor playing a homophobe was standing outside a café, telling two gay men sitting in the window that they should kill themselves. “This guy walks by and hears it and immediately grabs him, starts yelling at him, pushes him a couple times, and he was about to punch our actor,” Danino says. “The director started yelling out, and production stopped him.”

Once the passerby learned the bully was an actor and the situation had been set up as part of a PSA, he was apologetic. But the actors told him there was no need to apologize and thanked him for being the kind of person who would step in and do something in a situation like that, Danino relates.

Though the footage wasn’t used in the final cut of the video, all of the people who confronted the bullies were interviewed on camera to find out what compelled them to intervene. “They were very happy to be part of a PSA because they felt so strongly that bullying is wrong and that people should not do it, especially in this day and age with everything that’s going on in this country and the world,” Danino says. “It was just really nice to see people, strangers, being not just nice to each other but putting themselves at risk.”

In addition to encouraging everyone to #clickwithcompassion,” “In Real Life” also directs people to download #BeStrong emojis, which can be used to show support for people who are being bullied online.