It was Andre Agassi who brought us the phrase “Image is everything”. He was chasing the corporate dollar of camera giant Canon when he uttered the immortal words, which he soon found being shouted back to him on the tennis court. Three words, three commonplace words, but, strung together at that moment in the late 1980s when appearances were all, increasingly so in professional sport, they encapsulated a whole library of philosophy and belief, reduced to an intense core of fundamental truth.
Because the truth was fundamental, it was revealed, not concocted; and because of that it has endured. We have certainly seen recently that image is all-important for commercial television channels, who are nervously jealous of their reputations yet seem constitutionally incapable of safeguarding them effectively. I shouldn’t complain; it’s what sustains the industry I’m in.
I’m not an avid watcher of ITV2’s Love Island, but I’m sufficiently aware of popular culture to know the basics. Glamorous young people in minimal clothing parade themselves before the cameras in a modern-day beauty pageant, before the inevitable and lucrative viewing public is invited to participate in the activity by casting votes – and, of course, paying for the privilege. True to the modern reality TV playbook, voting is easy and straightforward, and the payment not so onerous that it will cause gripped viewers to hesitate with their fingers hovering over their smartphones.
An unassailable model, then, you might think, the perfect early 21st-century concoction of glamour, tawdriness, interactivity and profits. And it’s a formula that works: last year, the fourth series of Love Island topped four million viewers, the highest total for a multichannel event since the London Olympics. If this goose isn’t golden, then it’s certainly gilded. But then tragedy, and its consequent reputational damage, struck, and struck more cruelly than anyone could have imagined.
In June 2018, the body of former contestant Sophie Gradon was found at her family home in Northumberland. She had killed herself. A few weeks later, her boyfriend, Aaron Armstrong, unable to cope with the grief, also took his own life. Inevitably, it cast a dark pall over the show, but the Grim Reaper had not yet finished his work. In March this year, another former contestant, Mike Thalassitis, died by his own hand. The implication was clear: the show was taking an unacceptable mental and emotional toll on those who appeared, and, quite simply, ITV was failing in its duty of care to these unexpectedly vulnerable young people.
When PR executives sit round in seminars and workshops and brainstorming sessions, thinking about reputational crises, they could hardly imagine a worse set of circumstances than this. A television show, popular with viewers but already condemned by some as dumbed-down, populist fare, now seemed to be cursed. Its contestants were dying, needlessly, and it was not absurd to draw the inference that ITV was somehow at fault. It was a PR disaster. Nor was time generous, as series five was due to begin in June.
My practice doesn’t do corporate PR, but I can only assume that ITV did some pretty intensive consultation with appropriate advisers, trying to find out what they could do prior to this year’s series. They issued an outline of their duty of care practices last week, and today it was revealed that they had included a “plus-sized” woman in this year’s line-up. Aside from the obvious fact that Anna Vakili, a pharmacist from London, is more “Kardashian” than “plus-sized”, I applaud the producers for celebrating the body diversity message that there is no single desirable body type for men or for women, and people should feel comfortable in their skins.
The question is though, will it be enough? A good image is vital to television success, and a bad image, let alone one stained by multiple tragedy, is absolutely toxic – just ask Jeremy Kyle. There is, I sense, a public mood which increasingly expected broadcasters not just to look good and produce a good product, but to be good as well, to have a sense of corporate responsibility and societal well-being. Very soon there will be nowhere to hide, because ratings don’t lie. Will series five hit the heights of its immediate predecessor? Perhaps not. If it is not even in the same league, however, both the industry and critics might conclude that there is a deeper systemic which requires more than a patina of PR advice to address.