UPDATE 8/20/08: The Chronicle of Philanthropy picked up this post. Please feel free to comment here or there, but do participate in the conversation! I’ll respond to comments in both places. ~ Kivi

Advocates for the intellectually disabled, led by Special Olympics, are boycotting the movie Tropic Thunder because of the use of the word “retard” in the movie. The boycott has received a fair amount of press coverage, but I learned that they are simultaneously launching a “Change the Conversation . . . Stop Using the R-Word” campaign only when I searched online for their official press release about the movie. They believe the R-word is similar to the N-word and should be considered hate speech.

I think the “Stop Using the R-Word” campaign is a great idea and support it wholeheartedly, but using a Tropic Thunder boycott to launch it was a big tactical communications mistake, in my opinion.

Predictably, the new campaign isn’t getting much press coverage; only the movie boycott is. A Google search for “Special Olympics protest Tropic Thunder” gets 33,000 hits; “Special Olympics Tropic Thunder r-word.org” gets only 258 and many of those are Special Olympics sites.

By linking the campaign to a movie boycott, Special Olympics comes off as a bunch of humorless finger waggers, which makes them very easy for the public to ignore. People don’t like to be made to feel guilty about laughing at a very funny movie that’s getting great reviews from the nation’s top film critics.

But the real point here is that Tropic Thunder is an intense satire of the movie industry. Who delivers the line in question, “Never go full retard”? Robert Downey Jr. in BLACKFACE for crying out loud! The African-American community is talking about Downey’s performance, naturally, but you don’t see the NAACP protesting. Downey’s performance isn’t about trying to mock black people; it’s about mocking actors who will do anything, no matter how distasteful, for a chance at an Oscar nomination and audience adoration.

The whole R-word discussion revolves around Ben Stiller’s character’s attempt to redeem his career by playing “Simple Jack” — and his disappointment in not getting an Oscar nomination for doing it. The Simple Jack storyline in the movie shows us just how lame it is for actors to portray disabled people so superficially. Other subplots, including whether the characters played by Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey will let Stiller’s character die in the jungle to cash in on the insurance, also skewer the Hollywood industrial complex.

So what could Special Olympics and their coalition have done instead to capitalize on this huge movie without coming off like a bunch of whiners?

How about something that’s as equally creative, sharp, and satirical as the movie itself? What about coming up with a faux “Actor’s Guide to Playing a Retard” that puts the advocates’ issues with Hollywood out there in a stark yet humorous and intelligent way? Or what about a faux thesaurus of more acceptable slurs than the word “retard”?

Yes, these are both very edgy concepts that would demand a great deal of smart, creative talent to produce and near-perfect execution. Like all satire, including the movie, they could be very easily misunderstood. But the payoff could be huge. I’m certain they would have received much more press coverage and ultimately lots more support for the “Stop Using the R-Word” campaign than a lame movie boycott.

Of course, launching an edgy campaign takes lots of guts, which is not really in great supply in the nonprofit communications world. We are often too willing to trade off reaching new people and touching them more deeply for playing it safe with a staid message that’s sure to offend no one.

But in cases like this, I think it’s much better to fight fire with fire. Make me laugh at something outrageous and I’ll remember you and your message much longer than this movie will be in theaters, and infinitely longer than the chanting at the movie protest. Tropic Thunder is a Blunder? C’mon . . . nonprofits can do a whole lot better than that.

P.S. I’ve asked one of my BFFs, Rebecca Jamison, for her take on this topic. Rebecca is a huge movie fan (NEVER challenge her to a movie trivia contest!) and her little brother Terry is physically and mentally disabled. She’ll write a guest post for us next week. Until then, leave your thoughts here by clicking on “Read Comments.”

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