This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
The TikTok Sway House boys’ latest charity is almost making a mockery of public image rehabilitation campaigns — and we’re still falling for it
The Sway House members have not received great press this year. Bryce Hall and Blake Gray were charged with violating COVID safety policies in LA for throwing a rager in August, even after they were given a warning about their last party.
Outside the legal consequences, their reputations faced greater scrutiny. People thought they were the prime example of negligent teens who chose clout over public health. So, over the past few months, it became really important for Bryce, Blake, and the other house members (Josh Richards, Griffin Johnson, Jaden Hossler) to start rebuilding their public image.
Their strategy was textbook. Earlier this week, I got an email from their management with the subject line, “TikTok Stars Bryce Hall and Josh Richards Provide Food and Drink to Homeless in LA.” Apparently, in the spirit of “Giving Tuesday,” Josh and Bryce handed out Chipotle and their own brand of energy drinks to some people experiencing homelessness in the Los Angeles area.
There were videos attached that captured the event. It was a montage of Josh and Bryce handing the products to people with soundbites from the TikTokers saying things like, “feels good, dude,” and “putting smiles on people’s faces, it’s the best.” In one moment, a man holds a can of their energy drink and gives the brand a shout out to the camera.
This is the part of the newsletter where I tell you how I feel about it. Judging from the headline, you can make accurate guesses to my general feeling: It’s not great, despite how noble the act is on the surface. And I want to first say that any time anyone offers their time and resources to helping someone less fortunate is ostensibly doing something capital-G good.
However, with years of celebrity PR models to work with and compare to, this was both uninspiring and exploitative as an attempt at image rehab. Every time a famous person does a public act, a fun exercise is asking aloud, What is motivating this? And who is benefiting?
Filming and promoting the stunt with heavily branded products feels pretty contrary to doing good unconditionally. And if the motivation is to revamp the Sway House boys’ reputation, then the people experiencing homelessness featured in the video are props to the mission. Furthermore, do those struggling to source their daily food and water intake want energy drinks??
Influencers are almost always motivated first by maintaining or growing their audience and personal brand. In this case, Josh and Bryce needed to convince the general public that they are upstanding people with good morals, especially after being called negligent and selfish for throwing large parties. Charity work is by far the most obvious, and age-old way, for celebrities to do this.
But in 2020, these acts aren’t as convincing anymore. The public has gotten smarter and demands more authenticity, and I wish more influencers and media would realize it.
I asked Josh some of these questions outright: What was your/the Sway House boys’ motivation? Why was it filmed, and who does this act ultimately serve?
His responses were predictably rehearsed and resoundingly positive. He’s been media-trained well, I’ll give him that. “My Sway House brothers and I always try to find ways to give back, it is a part of my DNA and something my parents instilled in me from a very young age,” he said in a lengthy email statement. “The homeless situation in LA has, unfortunately, hit all-time highs with no sign of it getting better anytime soon.”
He said their intent to film it was because he and his crew wanted “to make a positive impact and lead by example.” He said they gave out their own brand of energy drinks because they had a stash lying around. “It’s always easier to arrange these types of giveback opportunities, especially last minute.” And he wanted to “make sure Chipotle got some recognition” for donating a few bowls and burritos.
I can believe that Josh and the Sway House boys sincerely believe in their mission to do good selflessly. But what they fail to acknowledge is the other component of their lives that works in tandem constantly: Everything they do is a part of their brand. Everything they do is inherently self-motivated and will benefit them — their income, their likability — ultimately. If they were purely thinking about the needs of people experiencing homelessness, they would have perhaps taken more time to organize essential supplies (which would not include their own energy drinks they have lying around), perhaps funded it all themselves, deployed many more people to help them hand out the supplies, and most importantly, not filmed the spectacle to send press releases about.
The women of Red Table Talk directly confronted Olivia Jade with realities someone else should have taught her
I completely understand the blowback to Red Table Talk inviting Olivia Jade as its latest guest. From the opening scene, the Smith family anticipated it too.
The show has become a sanctuary for celebrities to speak openly and cathartically. And if we’re talking image restoration, there is not a better franchise to be cosigned by. People thought Olivia Jade was undeserving of such an opportunity, and I agree with them. People thought she was once again taking the place of someone else who could have needed the platform more, which I also agree with.
But there was one defining moment during the interview that, to me, was transformative and made the appearance valuable. At one point during the 30-minute talk, Jada Pinkett Smith’s mom Adrienne Banfield-Norris, aka “Gammy,” looks Olivia Jade directly in the eyes and tells her why she and her parents are products of a larger systemic issue:
“There is so much violent dehumanization that the Black community has to go through on a daily basis, right? There is so much devastation — particularly, this year, 2020, with the pandemic and everything… There’s so much inequality and inequity that when you come to the table with something like this, it’s like, Child, please. I am exhausted. I am exhausted with everything we have to deal with as a community, and I just don't have the energy to put into the fact that you lost your endorsements or you’re not in school right now. Because, at the end of the day, you’re going to be OK. Your parents are going to go in and do their 60 days, and they’re going to pay their fine, and you guys will go on and live your life. And there are so many of us that it’s not going to be that situation. It just makes it very difficult, right now, to care.”
Olivia Jade looks scared and frozen, but I believe she was also listening and internalizing. She made direct eye contact back, shyly nodding and agreeing.
This is not about Olivia Jade; she did a decent job of acknowledging her privilege, because our standards had to be lowered for her. But Gammy being able to deliver a message — one that I imagine has been boiling over for so many people — so directly was powerful.
Influencers operate in self-created bubbles. When scandals hit, they often delete comments, mute mentions, and “unplug.” They’re not interviewed on mainstream shows as frequently as traditional celebrities (Olivia Jade even said this was her first-ever sit-down interview), so they have many opportunities to cocoon themselves from realities that they should hear, and that they should have been taught. Here we had a rare moment to watch a socially quarantined microcelebrity literally face the criticisms that Twitter keyboard warriors fight every day to have heard by people they’re targeting.
It was not Gammy’s responsibility to make Olivia Jade aware of truths outside of her bubble, but because she did, she was able to cut through, if only for a moment. And in that moment, Olivia Jade couldn’t turn her camera off, detach, or hide behind a Notes app apology. It felt like a brief, but real, moment of reckoning.
Until next time,