The new anti-bullying film "Bully" has been getting a lot of publicity over the past few weeks. First it made news because of a high-profile ratings battle in which the film's distributor, the Weinstein Co., challenged the rating given the film by the Motion Picture Association of America.

It had been given an R rating for profanity, but an alternate version was trimmed to make a more kid-friendly PG-13, allowing children of any age to see the documentary without an adult.

To many people this controversy smacked strongly of a publicity stunt to promote the film, since kids under 18 are perhaps the least likely demographic audience for a feature-length documentary film. (If kids see the film at all, it would likely be within the context of a "conversation starter" with an adult.)

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In a savvy marketing move, the Weinstein Co. proclaimed March 22, 2012, "Anti-Bullying Twitter Tuesday," asking thousands of people including many celebrities to tweet "13 million kids get bullied every year. Today take a stand with me and @BullyMovie #BullyMovie."

Stars and celebrities turned out in droves to parrot the tweet, including Ryan Seacrest, Ricky Martin, Randy Jackson, Katy Perry, Jonah Hill, Hugh Jackman, Kim Kardashian, Jessica Simpson, Mariah Carey and many others.

Yesterday the Weinstein Co. issued a press release announcing "that Justin Bieber continues to support 'Bully' by allowing his song 'Born to Be Somebody' to be used in the film's latest television spot. … 'My fans are always up for supporting a great cause. It's one of the things I'm most proud of as an entertainer,' said Bieber. 'I hope they see "Bully" with their friends and help start the conversation so we can end bullying.'"

Of course, all this was carefully planned. Marketers know that one of the most effective ways to advertise a product is to make it a symbol of something larger — it's not just a book or a movie, it's an event, a social movement, a cause or even a lifestyle.

Everyone agrees that bullying is wrong and harmful, but there's more than a hint of commercial exploitation in the parade of celebrities who have offered their nominal support for the film.

Is Bieber's allowing the use of a song in a TV spot likely to have any real effect on bullying? Or is it merely cross-promotion thinly disguised as activism? It seems to be a blend of advertising and slacktivism, in which easy, token efforts only pretend to draw attention to real social issues.

Slacktivism has been around for years. In 2009, for example, Facebook users were asked to color their avatar green to show support for anti-government protesters in Iran; hundreds of thousands of people did — to no apparent effect. The following year Facebook users were asked to change their profile pictures to cartoons in an effort to show support for victims of child abuse; that effort also did nothing to help abused children.

Just how effective are measures like this? Obviously an actor tweeting a phrase isn't going to stop bullying, but will Bieber's fans really flock to theaters to see a documentary film about bullying because he asked them to, or because his song was used in an ad for the film?

Just weeks ago George Clooney and his father were arrested in an attempt to draw attention to famine and genocide in Sudan, yet there's no sign that his legions of fans necessarily supported a cause he clearly feels strongly about. If these stars and celebrities are really concerned about stopping bullying, there are several nonprofit organizations they could donate time and money to instead of encouraging their fans to buy tickets to see a feature film.

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Of course there's nothing wrong with promoting a film — especially one with an important social agenda like highlighting the devastating effects of bullying or the plight of acid-attack victims — and certainly nothing wrong with wanting to stop bullying.

No one doubts that the film is well-intentioned, but the real question is efficacy: What, if any, good is it doing? One Reuters reporter noted the film's mixed reviews and skeptically asked, "Is 'Bully' a great movie? Can it really help launch an uprising that will put an end to something that has been going on for as long as kids have been going to school?"

This is of course not the first time that a movie has tried to brand itself as the vanguard of a social movement. The 2000 film "Pay It Forward," starring Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment, spawned a feel-good "Pay It Forward Foundation" created by author Catherine Ryan Hyde that contained more than a hint of film and book promotion. (The Pay It Forward Foundation seems now largely defunct, with schools and youth groups using its materials as recently as the 2007-2008 school year.)

Justin Bieber wants his fans to see "Bully" — and buy his song "Born to Be Somebody;" the Weinstein Co. also wants their fans to see "Bully" — and buy Bieber's song. All the stars and celebrities benefit from promotion and publicity.

Whether any of it will actually help real kids in the real world from being beaten and bullied in schoolyards across the country is another matter.


Credit: Weinstein Co.