A series of real estate advertisements posted to social media by St. John’s realtor and city councillor Debbie Hanlon prompted social media backlash over the weekend.
The advertisements included one about a prisoner-of-war, and another about a dead man during his wake. Both ads were removed after social media users called for them to be taken down.
Other advertisements, such as one about using Viagra to keep flowers fresh, were received by social media users as odd but not as offensive, and those are still posted online.
Social media users called the ads “bizarre” and “tactless” among other things.
Hanlon responded to the criticisms in a Facebook post on her real estate page on Saturday. “Keeping it Real Estate is a fun fact series we’ve been running for years,” she wrote. “Sorry if I hurt anyone’s feeling or insulted anyone. They really are meant to bring humour and a scatter oh! But certainly not to offend. Jeepers!!!”
One such advertisement featured a photo of Korean soldier, Yang Kyoungjong, who was conscripted to fight with Japan during the Second World War but was captured by the Soviet Union and pressed into fighting with the Red Army, only to be captured again and forced to fight for Germany, eventually ending up in a camp in the United States.
“I thought it was a prank of some sort because I can’t believe that anyone or any kind of businessperson would use that as their intentional marketing,” said Hasan Hai of Merb’ys calendar fame, and one of many people who spoke out against the ads over the weekend.
Ads intended to entertain
For her part, Hanlon told The Telegram she’d never do anything to hurt or offend anyone.
“If anyone found anything I was doing offensive, I would stop it. I wouldn’t do anything to go out to hurt someone, why would I do that? Why would I hurt my business? This ad was not racist. This is an ad about a young soldier who became a prisoner of war that was forced to fight, and he’s an anomaly because he’s the only soldier that fought on three sides … these ads are just supposed to entertain, enlighten, and a little bit to educate.”
But people posting on social media saw the ads differently.
“It’s just bewildering. Using a former POW as a vehicle for marketing and promotion, and then the second one was a dead person, a cadaver, being used as a joke — it’s baffling,” said Hai.
The cadaver ad included a photo from a Puerto Rican taxi driver’s wake. The driver, who died of cancer, loved his job so much he wanted to be buried in his cab. The ad stated, ‘Need a lift to great service, call me!’ and included business contact information for Hanlon.
A Twitter user named Jerry Furlong commented on the ad with what he called “a friendly heads up.”
“There’s a dead human being in your ad for real estate,” he wrote. “Seems like you may not have noticed?”
Some comments pondered whether Hanlon’s account was hacked, and others said the ads made them want to choose any other real estate agent.
However, Hanlon said most people love the ‘Keeping it Real Estate’ series.
“I’ve been asked to put them in a book, and I’ve had other realtors ask me to do campaigns for them,” she said, adding: “With real estate these days, you have to be a bit more creative, you can’t just be shoving ‘Oh I’m selling houses’ in people’s faces, so you add it with a bit of fun, a bit of laughter.
“They’re colourful ads. They’re recognizable because they’re all done the same way, and we tie them into real estate. So, you know, it wasn’t hurtful, it wasn’t mean, it was just a fun fact.”
Hanlon said there are 500 such ads which have been used to market her business for four years now. They’re created by her husband, Oral Mews.
Backlash and bullying
While Hanlon said the ads were intended to be light-hearted, she noted the response over the weekend was anything but.
“I was inundated with the most awful lines of hatred that I’ve ever experienced in my life, and it wasn’t about the ads — it turned very personal very quickly. I was called a racist pig. I was called a cokehead. I was called a slut.”
Hanlon said she was “overwhelmed” by the comments.
“I just couldn’t deal with it because my character, anyone who knows me — and a lot of people do — is I’m a good person, and I spend a lot of my time doing a lot of good things. I’m so emotional right now,” she said through tears.
“I’ve given myself and my time to my community since I was a child, and I will not stand for this kind of bullying.”
Hanlon said she often speaks with school children about bullying.
She said the “mob mentality” of social media is “unreal” and something she’s never experienced before, and that a couple of people from out of province were particularly hateful. So, she’s hired a lawyer to deal with them. She even plans to contact Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the level of bullying she says she endured, and she’s considering doing a series about cyber bullying in light of her experience over the weekend.
“I’m not putting up with it—not for another second.”
Councillors held to higher standard
Meanwhile, Hanlon said she received support from city council members who reached out to see if she was OK.
In an e-mailed statement to The Telegram, Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary said while she personally found the prisoner-of-war ad “in very poor taste,” she added it’s Hanlon’s personal business “and not representative of myself nor of council members.”
“Unlike political parties, City Council is a group of individual representatives that conduct themselves independently,” O’Leary said.
But in Hai’s opinion, the fact that Hanlon is a city councillor makes the advertisements particularly troubling.
“This is a city councillor with the City of St. John’s who should be a champion of progressive forms of inclusion,” he said.
“If it was a random business, I would dismiss them and call them out and probably move on, but this is one of our leaders. This is a person who we look to to set an example.
“Why it’s taken two days and literally dozens of comments on her social media posts to take it down, it speaks to the fact that I don’t think she quite gets it, and I’m not saying somebody should be raked over the coals over this, but if someone just isn’t getting it, she may need to take some steps to really understand the harm she’s caused. So, I don’t think deleting the posts is enough.
“She really has to show that she’s actually learned something and can set a better example and not just say sorry I did this thing, and sorry I hurt your feelings, because that’s not really an apology – that’s I’m sorry that there was a bad reaction to something I did, which is a very different thing than you’ve actually learned a lesson and realized there’s been an error.”
While he pushed for Hanlon to offer more than a ‘sorry’ and an explanation of the ads’ intention, he also said he’s disheartened to hear that she was personally attacked.
“Any kind of personal attacks are completely out of hand. We can disagree with someone and keep it civil.”