An episode of South Park called “The F-word” aired on Friday night in the US, and Saturday night in Canada.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker aired what many of us in social analytics knew already: the re-appropriation of the F-Word.
The word has a lot of history attached to it. I don’t like the hateful connotation of the word myself.
I’m not using it in that connotation. Far from it. I can get past history that to discuss an important phenomenon and the implications.
So, if you’re uncomfortable with the implications of the term – stop reading and move along. I’m stating, very clearly, that if you don’t like the word – stop reading.
I’ll start by bringing everybody onto the same page, and then I’ll write, at length, about the implications for advertisers (Harley in particular) and the implications for social marketing.
The episode starts with a pretty huge insight: the damage that bikers do to communities. In effect, bikers produce a negative externality, the production of a massive amount of noise, to the detriment of all others. (Ever been on a patio in Toronto? Yup – South Park covers that too.)
You can watch the full episode at the link below and follow along. If you don’t have the time, a summary follows.
If you want to watch on the Comedy Network, you’re looking for South Park, Season 13, Episode 12.
In the beginning, the boys are enjoying a wonderful day outside.
Then they hear that loud noise of the motorcycle.
The motivations of bikers for making such noise is laid bear by Parker and Stone in the subsequent scene. It’s all about the need of bikers for attention.
What then follows is the appropriation of the term ‘fag’ to bikers at 2:28 by Eric Cartman.
The bikers end up being even louder, which prompts the boys to hatch a plan. At 5:43 into the episode, Butters does a nice speech empathizing with the bikers. He’s summarily dismissed and the boys plan to take dumps on the bikers seats and to write “go away fags” in a number of places about town.
Predictably, at 8:20 into the episode, Big Gay Al and Mister Slave, two recurring and tolerant characters on the show, are walking down the street and sees these huge words written everywhere.
Outrage ensues and a town meeting is held. The mayor is pissed.
Stan and Kyle take total credit for it.
At 9:20, they remark that the term ‘fag’ has nothing to do with ‘gay people’. In effect, they don’t see the relation at all between the term ‘fag’ and ‘gay’.
At 9:40, the bikers retreat the library and to the dictionary. Stone and Parker actually recite the long history of the word fag, and are clearly setting up the next huge act of the show.
At 11:40, the boys are pulled in front of a board, where the adults proceed to try to understand the term. Fag becomes known as “an inconsiderate douchebag”.
The boys ask: “Don’t you people keep up with today’s lingo at all”? (I lolled.)
At 13:00 Big Gay Al goes into an organization to rally behind the boys, supporting the re-definition.
At 14:00 the mayor signs an ordinance making the term permissible and re-defined.
At 15:15, the mayor freaks out and calls the boys into her office, now. Predictably, the progressives are freaked out about the actual term within the dictionary as being pejorative to homosexuals.
At 16:00, the boys solution is that they have to change the dictionary definition so they could be free to call Harley drivers ‘fags’.
Predictably, at 16:50, the bikers decide to resort to violence.
At 17:10, South Park welcomes the head dictionary editor in an effort to convince them to change the term.
This sets up the climax.
In a delicious piece of esoteric satire, Emmanuel Lewis is the dictionary editor (“What Choo Talkin’ ’bout Lewis?”) comes to town. The bikers show up to beat the crap out of everybody, including Emmanuel Lewis.
At 21:30, Stone and Parker make a direct appeal to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, calling upon all children to call all bikers faggots across America. At 22:00, the editor of the dictionary declares the definition.
Kyle walks forward, breaking the fourth wall again, and says, “this day, we’ve made history”.
The new definition of the word ‘fag’ appears on the screen:
“1. An extremely annoying, inconsiderate person most commonly associated with a Harley rider. 2. A person who owns or frequently rides a Harley”
The episode cuts to the familiar credits.
Implications for the Harley Davidson Brand
This is a complete, unmitigated disaster, for Harley Davidson.
South Park, while on the decline with the general pubic since 1999, has a very strong influence on Millennial through to late Gen X males. It has one of the biggest groups on Facebook (nearly 3 million fans) at the time of writing.
(At the time of writing, Harley has a share price of $25.73).
South Park has a major impact on language. Terms such as “derp” and “three fiddy” continue to be used by this self-referential market segment – years and years after their introduction.
While Harley’s current demo is very much geared towards older males, the tainting of the Harley customer is total and complete. Because Parker and Stone started off with a massive insight: that the behavior of Harley drivers is inconsiderate to the extreme, the truth resonates throughout the episode. In fact, the lingering fear that people will be beat up by Bikers is directly referenced in the episode itself. The smearing is made complete with Butters becoming the voice of empathy. (A regular watcher of the show will understand why that, unto itself, is devastating.)
The second implication is that Parker and Stone are calling on Children to actively socially denigrate bikers. Having watched 11 year olds shout “giggity” at the top of the lungs, I can say with some degree of confidence that this could really happen.
Parker and Stone are actively trying to introduce a negative externality into the experience of riding a Harley. They seek to return negative attention and return the favor. This might have their desired impact of making the experience of riding a Harley socially unacceptable, and so allowing all of us to enjoy the peace.
This is a deliberate social experiment directed at the heart of the Harley Brand.
I have good reason to believe that it will be effective in some quarters.
Implications for Language
Marketers really like tag lines that stick out in the head (it helps message recall).
“Where’s the Beef” is one example. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis” is another.
If you’re going to be a social marketer, you have to understand language and context.
What’s interesting here is that it’s the first time, at least to my knowledge, that the producers of a show have actually tried to force the re-definition of a word.
It’s this transposition of a hate word from one group to another that is particularly interesting.
This is an important case study.
Yes – it’s just a show. Yes – it’s such a hateful word. Yes – there’s a lot wrong with it.
I’m incredibly interested in how this experiment goes down. What is the impact of a carefully seeded message, hammered away over a period of 22 minutes, with some 2 to 3 million people watching?
Will the definition actually shift, or will it go down as a failure?
And if so, with such high penetration amongst such a dedicated group of people, what are the implications for social marketing?
The choice of subject matter is unfortunate. I didn’t write the experiment and I don’t necessarily support it.
Serious social analysts need to sit up and take note.