‘The Slap’ Slaps
It’s been a while since the internet had a piece of material as globally viral as the video of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars on Sunday night. By mid-day yesterday, most countries across the world were circulating memes, gifs, and redraws of the slap. Speculation about if this moment at the 94th edition of the Academy Awards was staged or not quickly became secondary in a perfect storm that combined our culture’s obsession with celebrity drama and social media’s appetite for exploitable image macros.
The evening really heated up when Chris Rock came on stage to present the award for Best Documentary Feature. While on stage, Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, saying “Jada, I love ya. GI Joe 2, can’t wait to see it,” a reference to Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. For context, Pinkett Smith has spoken openly about having alopecia, a hair-loss condition. Although he appeared first to laugh, seconds later Smith stormed onto the stage and struck Rock across the face before walking back to his seat. “Wow,” Rock replied, stunned. “Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me.” Smith continued to yell at Rock from the audience, saying “keep my wife’s name out of your mouth” minus a few expletives.
Twitter was immediately lit up with different versions of the incident as international broadcasts like Japan and Australia aired the entire exchange with full audio while the US broadcast cut the sound once Smith was back in his seat and yelling to Rock on stage. Images of the slap, which were captured from various angles quickly had an explosion in memes on Sunday evening with early iterations that included Twitter user evanssugarbaby’s meme posted minutes afterwards with the logo of the Chris Rock-led TV show Everybody Hates Chris superimposed on the image of him getting slapped. Reddit user Robecuba posted a meme onto the /r/dankmemes subreddit showing Chris Rock with the Minecraft HUD overlaid and text showing him being in danger. In the hours following the viral video, an anonymous 4chan user posted an exploitable template of Will Smith punching Chris Rock to the /tv/ board. Overnight, the thread gained hundreds of replies, with users sharing memes and redraws that superseded franchises and fandoms like Arthur, The Simpsons, Pepé the Frog, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Pokémon to name a few.
It hasn’t even been a full two days since the Oscars, yet the memes and redraws that have already spawned from the big slap have transcended into more abstract and exploitable image macros. The conversation surrounding these memes inspired other trends yesterday, like The Rock trending on Twitter with users joking that Smith may not have reacted the same way if Dwayne Johnson had made the joke instead of Chris Rock. Frustrated Wordle players also centered memes of the slap in viral discussion of the difficulty over the game’s word of the day on Monday, which destroyed winning streaks for many players. Players shared their failed tiles with jokes like “I’m going to Will Smith the entire New York Times office.”
Despite social media being inundated with references and remixes of Will Smith and Chris Rock, it’s also worth mentioning that many users were skeptical about if this fiasco was even real, some pointing out that the Oscars are in dire need of a way to reel viewers back in after historic lows on viewership over the last few years. 15.3 million people watched Sunday’s 94th Oscar Awards which marks the second-smallest Oscars audience in history, according to Nielsen. Prior to the pandemic, no Oscars telecast had ever fallen below 20 million viewers. The 2020 Oscars, which aired before the pandemic lockdowns in the U.S., drew 23.6 million viewers, while the 2019 show drew 29.6 million viewers. Public interest in Sunday night’s Oscars exploded in the 11 p.m. hour, after the slap, according to data from NewsWhip. The show began at 8 p.m. ET and ended around 11 p.m. ET. Viewership for all major TV events has declined as more people turn to streaming, but award shows viewership seems to be declining faster than most major live sports championship events, according to an Axios analysis of Nielsen data. Some users agreed that if the slap had been scripted or planned, it would’ve likely happened earlier in the evening.
Looking at brand response, the Academy has received mixed reactions to its handling of the incident. “The Academy does not condone violence of any form,” the organization tweeted after the event. “Tonight we are delighted to celebrate our 94th Academy Awards winners, who deserve this moment of recognition from their peers and movie lovers around the world.” Some viewers criticized this as PR optics given that Smith received an Oscar for King Richard about ten minutes after the incident and stayed in attendance the rest of the evening. Yesterday, Smith shared a public apology to Rock and The Academy which has received close to 1M reactions. Shortly afterwards, the 9,900-member Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences condemned Smith’s actions and said it was reviewing the matter. “We have officially started a formal review around the incident and will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our Bylaws, Standards of Conduct and California law,” the academy added. Violations may result in suspension or expulsion from the organization, revocation of Oscars, or loss of eligibility for future awards, according to the policy.
Outside of the Academy, brand response to the viral slap has understandably been cautionary. We expect to see more brands reference this in the coming days and weeks, likely an ironic or comedic way similar to Fashion Nova’s sale announcement yesterday, in which they sent out text messages that read “ “We SLAPPED 40% Off the ENTIRE site! It’s Time to ROCK New Spring Looks.” While this earned online clothing retailer Fashion Nova free PR amongst Twitter users, some were critical of the celebratory tone or exploitative nature of the message. In contrast, Vitaly, a jewelry company started in Italy, was slightly more clever and careful in how they integrated the viral moment into their marketing. They also sent individual text messages to previous customers that read “Last night’s Oscars were something else 👀 Did you catch Beyonce’s entire team of dancers wearing our Fuse chain?” with a link to the product.
Social media users are nowhere near done milking this controversial moment for views, likes, and reshares, which means that brands are likely just getting started. As with most viral phenomena, time will tell which ones are able to find the right tone and timing. Despite the slap being the most talked about moment of the 2022 Oscars, we’d also like to highlight a handful of memorable moments from Sunday’s award ceremony, particularly the minorities who made history with first time nominations and wins.
- The 2022 Best Picture race turned into a showdown between two very different but equally beloved films: CODA and The Power Of The Dog. Sian Heder’s CODA took home the oscar, underscoring the timeless appeal of a movie that tugs at the heartstrings.
2. CODA’s cast and crew also made history on Sunday night with Director Jane Campion becoming the only woman to be nominated twice for Best Director and Best Supporting Actor Troy Kotsur becoming the second-ever deaf actor to win an Academy Award.
3. Jessica Chastain’s award speech for Best Actress was a fan favorite moment. Chastain talked about her decade long effort to tell the story of Tammy Faye Messner, an American evangelist, singer, author, talk show host, and television personality. Chastain highlighted Messners’s efforts to defend and advance LGBTQ rights, at a time when doing so put her at odds with the religious community.
4. Beyoncé kicked off the night with a jaw-dropping performance of “Be Alive,” her Best Song-nominated ballad from King Richard. Clad in a tennis-ball yellow gown and backed by a huge group of musicians wearing the same shade, the first-time nominee performed live from the Tragniew Park Courts in Compton, California — where Venus and Serena Williams grew up playing.
5. 60 years after Rita Moreno won Best Supporting Actress for playing Anita in West Side Story, Ariana DeBose won the same award for the same role in the 2022 remake of the cult classic. The two became the first pair of actresses to win an Academy Award for playing the same role in different movies, and DeBose became only the second Latina to ever win an acting Oscar — the first being Moreno. DeBose, a queer woman of color, became the first openly queer actor to win an acting Oscar. In her acceptance speech, she declared “there is indeed a place for us,” which received a standing ovation from the audience.
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