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Clarkson redux

By Mal Fletcher - posted Friday, 27 March 2015

This morning, The Telegraph reported that the BBC has decided to sack TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson, because of an altercation between him and a producer on the Top Gear programme.

The decision has ramifications beyond the survival of the global Top Gear brand. For one thing, it raises questions about the efficacy of large online protests and petitions.

A plethora of social media platforms have turned opinion-sharing into a compulsion for many people. Yet online public petitions – even well subscribed ones – may carry far less weight than we'd like to believe.


In the past couple of weeks, more than one million people signed a petition calling for Clarkson's return to what is arguably the most popular car programme ever devised for TV, anywhere.

More than 350 million viewers tuned in worldwide to Top Gear, which was fronted by Clarkson and is to date BBC Worldwide's biggest money spinner.

Despite a following that other BBC presenters and their producers can only dream about, Clarkson declared earlier this week that protests like the one designed to save his job never work. In two weekend newspaper columns, he wrote that the world is run by 'whales', while most people are merely 'plankton', or potential whale food. Whales, he said, pay scant attention to the smaller creatures of the sea no matter how many of them are flapping about.

This was perhaps discouraging news for Guido Fawkes, the organisers of last week's petition, which was spectacularly delivered to 10 Downing Street in a tank.

There is, of course, ample evidence that, under certain circumstances petitions and similar forms of online protest do achieve positive results. In 2012, a 14-year-old girl set up a campaign to get Seventeen, one of America's leading teen magazines, to stop using photo-shopped or airbrushed images of its models. Her petition gathered more than 80,000 signatures and forced the magazine to change its approach.

Closer to home, an 18-year-old woman in Stoke-on-Trent launched the #NoMakeUpSelfie campaign, which saw thousands of women, including celebrities, posting photos of themselves without makeup. In one week, the campaign raised more than £8 million for cancer research.


These and other examples suggest that online protests and campaigns can work if they fulfil certain conditions.

The first is a clearly defined and transmitted goal. People must know what measurable change – as opposed to vague, emotional pleas – they're being asked to support.

The goal must also be straightforward enough to be easily communicable across viral social media networks. Basically, if the goal can't be summed up in 100-120 eye-catching, heart-tugging characters on Twitter – that is, allowing enough space for it to be retweeted – it won't gain much traction.

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This article was first published on 2020PLUS.NET.

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About the Author

Mal Fletcher is a media social futurist and commentator, keynote speaker, author, business leadership consultant and broadcaster currently based in London. He holds joint Australian and British citizenship.

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