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16 August 2023

The rise of pity marketing

On social media, the sob story has become a successful strategy for struggling artists bidding for virality.

By Sarah Manavis

There are few behaviours considered more unflattering than actively seeking pity. For many, the thought of others feeling sorry for us is patronising or demeaning. Who wants to receive sympathy by looking pathetic? But on social media, such abjection is no longer seen as undesirable: pity is a lucrative route to engagement and attention. It’s now become common for people to share sob stories – particularly ones about professional failure – in an apparent bid to gain support (and promotion and custom) from total strangers.

In the last few months, there have been countless examples. A writer shares a photo of an empty reading, and world-famous authors such as Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood reply with messages of support, while hundreds of others buy the author’s book. A young woman posts to TikTok that her mother had failed to sell any of her home-made Christmas decorations at a local market, resulting in a rush of online orders. 

Two weeks ago, at the start of the Edinburgh Fringe, an actor named Georgie Grier posted on Twitter to say only one person had turned up to her one-woman preview show, attaching a picture of herself crying with the caption: “It’s fine, isn’t it? It’s fine…?” Within hours, she had thousands of replies – some of which came from famous comedians such as Jason Manford and Dara Ó Briain – encouraging her to keep going and informing her that they had bought tickets to future dates. The tweet went viral, inspiring a handful of “heart-warming” tabloid news stories along with it, and has now been viewed just under 15 million times.

The day after the tweet, Grier performed to a packed-out room. Many other performers and their supporters are now explicitly citing her viral success in attempts to sell tickets to other Fringe shows. While it may be true that Grier only had one audience member at her initial preview, people soon realised that she had posted a nearly identical tweet at the start of the Fringe in 2022. Pity moved tickets both times.

[See also: The cultural divide no one wants to talk about]

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Using a “sob story” to advertise yourself is nothing new, and not all cases of public pitifulness come with an ulterior motive. But despite the suggestion that talking about failure continues to be “taboo”, the act of monetising narratives of failure has become commonplace online. It’s a blunt marketing tool that appeals to our most basic human impulses, and knows that – regardless of originality or quality – if we feel bad enough for someone, we might click “buy”. The trend emerges alongside the rise in pity as a social media currency, such as the popularity of “pity me” personal essays. Is it real success if you had to publicly declare yourself a failure to achieve it? Those who opt in to pity marketing seem unconcerned, given it can yield major (if short-term) returns

These cheap and often obvious tactics are linked to the shamelessness often rewarded by social media, where things most people would never dream of sharing beyond a close circle of friends are instead loudly professed – usually in a bid for attention – to hundreds, millions, of strangers. While reduced stigma around subjects such as body image or mental health issues is a net positive, let’s not extend the same empowerment narratives to poorly-attended plays or unpopular home-made crafts.

Struggling artists do deserve empathy – often the only thing standing between talented artists and their success is a little bit of support. But this trend indicates a growing belief that every artist deserves this kind of achievement and should be spared a brush with failure. Success should be earned on merit, not fleetingly bestowed by a pitying public. This manufactured pity instead blindly inflates the value of the work in question – as if to say: if the story is sad enough, the art is automatically good.

Given the returns pity marketing is generating, it will likely only become more prevalent. But this shallow metric of success will rarely provide long-term benefits for artists – not just for artists, but for anyone. Whether it elevates good art or not is random; a total roulette. Provoking our sympathy may result in a brief moment of viral fame, maybe even a taste of real success. But then we scroll on, moving our attention to the next briefly engrossing misfortune.

[See also: The age of digital outrage]

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