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JOAN London tackles online harassment with the Salem Witch Trials #BehindTheIdea 

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JOAN London has created a powerful new advertising campaign for The Cybersmile Foundation to combat the growing threat of cyberbullying and online abuse. The campaign, Modern Witch Trials, which includes a short film directed by Chromista’s Eliza McNitt, aims to raise awareness of online harassment, and spark a conversation about finding kinder ways to address problematic behaviour online.

Drawing parallels with the Salem Witch Trials, which began 332 years ago this month, the film concludes with the central message that "Mob Justice Isn’t New. It Just Got a Tech Upgrade”, directing people to The Cybersmile Foundation website for information on how to engage more productively online.

Born out of the rise of cancel culture, the campaign builds on the idea that cyberbullying and social media retribution are becoming more widespread, both for celebrities and those who are not in the public eye. It stresses how online harassment can affect anyone with a social media presence and that it is critical to not only highlight this increasingly prevalent issue but also start the dialogue about how we can build a more compassionate digital community.

It was produced by Chromista, the production company of Hollywood director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan and The Whale), Ted Robbins, Adina Birnbaum, and Scott Franklin.  It was directed by Emmy Award nominee and Venice Film Festival winner Eliza McNitt – all big supporters of The Cybersmile Foundation’s mission and work.

To learn more, we spoke to Tom Ghiden, Managing Director at JOAN London.

What was the brief?

At JOAN London, we’re constantly trying to make work that reflects our culture, and can help a brand maintain legendary status by making an impact. 

In this case, the idea for the campaign for the Cybersmile Foundation: “Modern Witch Trials” originally came from conversations we had internally around last autumn’s newscycle. We noticed the frequency we saw celebrities or people in the public eye being cancelled or called out for doing or saying something that people perceive as unreasonable.

And while we acknowledge the importance of calling out objectionable behaviour, we found that in many cases - especially on social media - things were turning negative so quickly and the opportunity for productive discussion was being lost. 

Social media mobs were taking over before there was time for an apology or dialogue.  And, so we wondered if this was holding back our evolving culture or if there were perhaps more productive ways to drive social change.  

How did the initial pitch/brainstorming phase go?

Talking about this behaviour within our office led to a creative team making an interesting reference to the Salem witch trials. This is a time we can all agree was fundamentally wrong, and yet this concept of being prosecuted and unable to defend oneself was so similar to the examples we’ve seen in modern online culture.

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Once this concept came to light, we knew we had to find a way to bring this creatively to life. This led to a creative jumping off space around the idea: “mob culture isn’t new, it just got a tech upgrade.”

What was the process behind ideating the concept?

We immersed ourselves in knowledge, as we understand this is a complicated and nuanced part of our modern world.  We read books, like Jon Ronson’s You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, we listened to podcasts, and read research from leading universities around the world. We discussed and debated the topic from every angle to ensure we were being empathetic to different perspectives.

We also connected with Scott Freeman, the CEO of The Cybersmile Foundation. Its charitable mission is to ensure everybody has the right to access and enjoy our connected world.

Scott and his team shared great data around cyberbullying and the effects of the online mob culture. Through our conversations with Scott and his team we all realised there was so much potential to drive change, and we all set out to bring this message to the world. 

Once we had done the groundwork, the development of the idea did come together relatively quickly. For us, we wanted to ensure creatively this didn’t fall into traditional marketing tropes, or feel like scare-mongering. 

The Cybersmile Foundation is an uplifting charity focused on bringing positivity to our online space.  So, it was important to us that we found a visual articulation of our analogy that would cinematically tell a captivating story. 

What was the production process like?

We knew a focus on craft was going to be fundamental to tell a compelling story in this space.  So we had a shortlist of who would be the best partners to bring this idea to life.  We’ve long been impressed with the calibre of storytelling Chromista brings to the work.

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Eliza McNitt, specifically, is a director who’s done so much creative exploration in the space of emerging tech, including her Emmy-nominated VR experience, SPHERES. Eliza was incredibly collaborative. As soon as we got into conversations, we could tell she shared our desire to bring to life the nuanced emotional impact social media has in our modern day.

Her creativity helped to elevate the idea and execution and bring the idea to life in an unconventional and beautiful way. 

What was the biggest challenge during production? How did you overcome it?

Our biggest challenge was determining how to tell this story to resonate with the masses as we realise how complicated this topic is. Even as we got more involved in production we were constantly reflecting on the nuances in language and performance to ensure our message could not be misconstrued. 

Namely, we want to ensure we weren’t suggesting that we should silence movements in the online space. 

We’ve seen such powerful factions use the online world to drive action, and give a voice to victims who’d been silenced for too long, like the #TimesUp or Black Lives Matter movements. However, our message was how dangerous it can be when conversation – even in the name of social change – moves into the problematic tone of online bullying.

What kit/tools/software were used to create the project?

We worked with some of the very best in the production business to bring this idea to life, and these partners elevated the idea and craft to an extraordinary level. Eliza was an amazing director, but also we had excellent support from The Mill, The Quarry and Sonic Union.

What is one funny or notable thing that happened during production?

We shot the film overseas in Texas. So most of our onscreen talent was Texan or American based. For our mob, we were keen to ensure we had a huge mass of people who could blend in together and provide an almost hive like experience on camera. 

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To help, we reached out to the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and they agreed to come participate as our mob. Their choreographer even helped design the mob movement for the camera.  

What’s the main message of this project and why does it matter?

Cybersmile’s mission is to ensure everybody has the right to access and enjoy our connected world. 

We hope this campaign helps one person reflect on their role within a growing mob. Ideally it encourages people to keep standing up for their beliefs but finding a more productive way to do so. 

How long did it take from inception to delivery?

From inception to delivery was only five months, with a few weeks off for Christmas! 

What do you hope it achieves for the brand?

At JOAN London, we’re keen to make work that truly changes the way people look at the world and elevates brands in the meantime. The Cybersmile Foundation has such a fantastic mission for our world and is doing amazing work to get people to think about problematic online behaviour. 

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We were so grateful that we were able to collaborate to bring this campaign to life, and do our part to contribute to their mission, was a hugely proud moment for us.

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