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How Monica Lewinsky uses her personal experience to inform her creative anti-bullying efforts

Lewinsky talks about making “The Epidemic” and how she’s using her past to inform her PSA work and new projects with HBO, Ryan Murphy, and more.

How Monica Lewinsky uses her personal experience to inform her creative anti-bullying efforts
[Photo: Michael Tran/FilmMagic via Getty Images]

If you haven’t seen it yet, Monica Lewinsky’s new anti-cyberbullying PSA that launched last week is a harrowing, emotional journey—and a nightmare for any parent.

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In 2017, Lewinsky’s PSA for the same cause, “In Real Life,” was nominated for an Emmy. Her PSA work, done in conjunction with the agency BBDO New York, focuses on the epidemic of public shaming online and its effects on young people and culture. Yesterday, HBO Max announced its deal with Lewinsky and Max Joseph for a new documentary feature called 15 Minutes of Shame, about the culture of public shaming.

Lewinsky has built on her now-viral TED talk called “The Price of Shame” to create a growing body of work, activism, and advocacy aimed at forcing us to reconcile with our online behavior, both as individuals and a collective society.

Fast Company talked to Lewinsky about the creative process behind the PSA, how she’s using her past experiences to make work that matters, and where things go from here.

Fast Company: This is your third PSA in as many years. How did the idea for “The Epidemic” come about, and what was the creative process like with BBDO?

Monica Lewinsky: We usually start kind of with a discussion around what are the sorts of things that I’ve been seeing in the field in the last year and what might be some interesting places to dive in as a starting point. This year, we asked if there was a way to show how to externalize the internal pain of being cyber bullied. I was intrigued by thinking about prison tattoos, and how they sort of tell this external story of something that we can’t see immediately, but that becomes a language all in of itself. We often pay attention when we see physical pain, right? We don’t see it in the same way as emotional pain, which isn’t as immediately obvious.

My trauma psychiatrist shared with me research from 2012 that suggested social exclusion and emotional pain follow some of the same neural pathways as physical pain. Emotional distress and cyber bullying can be hard to see, which is part of the epidemic and became the tagline of it. That’s where we started, and we had a few different creative iterations and eventually landed on this. This was really the one that affected me the most personally.

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With this campaign, I dipped into some really old and deep places to bring an emotional layer to the PSA. It’s obviously not a re-creation from my life in any way, but the sofa scene in particular was something where I felt my personal experiences, which I drew on talking to the creative team about what it felt like the day the Starr Report came out, that tsunami of anxiety, shame, fear, and public humiliation. It doesn’t matter whether it’s on a global scale or on your whole world scale, which here is the school and her parents.

FC: The CDC last week reported that the number of suicides from people ages 10 to 24 increased 56% from 2007 to 2017. The PSA opens with its own CDC alert. Why was that detail important?

ML: I want to be really explicit, we’re not trying to blame parents in any way here. With the CDC announcement, when we have those kinds of announcements, if there was a flu going around or a mosquito virus, people look for the signs, right? When you’re made aware, you look for the signs. That’s really at the core of what we’re talking about here, making parents aware of some signs to look for, so when you’re evaluating your child’s behavior, it becomes part of your instinct and your intuition when you have that information.

FC: Who is this campaign aimed at most?

ML: It’s a wide range of people. There are the assholes online who, no matter what you share with them, no matter how you try to explain to them the impact of their behavior, they’re probably still going to be assholes online. But then there’s a wide berth of people who probably think they might be joking, probably don’t really think about the impact because of the online disinhibition effect. They might think, ‘Oh, it’s only words. They can’t really have an impact.’ This allows them to really step into Haley’s shoes and understand the impact of their actions.

It’s also for the targets of bullying behavior, people who are experiencing this now or if it happens to someone in the future, to understand and know how important it is to reach out and tell someone. By no means are we victim blaming, but we want people to know that there’s no shame in this happening. You can tell your parents, you can tell a trusted adult, tell a friend, tell a teacher.

FC: The word epidemic certainly conveys the stakes, and after watching this I was struck by how well it evoked the immediate need for more vigilance and awareness. My kids are nowhere near teens, yet it still immediately made me feel paranoid and panicked. I have colleagues who told me it made them cry. What have been some of the responses so far?

ML: The most impactful one for me so far was from Carol Todd, whose daughter is Amanda Todd. She wrote to me about how impactful she felt this was, and that she felt that often these kinds of messages haven’t gone far enough for people to understand the impact of what their actions can do. So that meant a lot to me.

FC: There was the HBO Max deal announcement, but you’re also a producer on the upcoming third season of FX’s American Crime Story. You said on The Today Show last week that your goal is to be a creative producer, around topics like collective healing and reclaiming narratives. How does telling your story, and using the lessons from it, in these different ways feel?

ML: I’m incredibly grateful, and it’s a little scary to be honest. With American Crime Story, when I had the opportunity to sit down with Ryan, I already respected him so much, but what comes out when you have a face-to-face conversation with him is how much he cares about marginalized communities, how much he cares about telling stories from angles and through lenses that we haven’t historically done. That was incredibly meaningful to me. It gave me an extraordinary sense of confidence in signing onto the project.

Historically a fallen woman, you know, this archetype, we’re sort of pushed away, never to be heard of again. People from different marginalized communities who have been in this position or similar positions, we may, at times, be asked to participate behind the scenes. We may be offered resources to not complain about something being done. But to have an active role, to have a voice with people standing by you, by making you a producer or an executive producer on something like this, to acknowledge experiences, to acknowledge a contribution, is extraordinary meaningful. And I hope it’s something that begins to happen for many more people.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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