Demonstrators protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown make their voices heard on Aug. 18 in Ferguson, Mo. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Last year, Miley Cyrus’s twerking, teddy-bear-filled performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards set off fierce arguments about race and cultural appropriation. This year, MTV is hoping to use its awards ceremony to start a different kind of conversation. Before and during the show, the network will be airing somber public service announcements about the ongoing standoff between law enforcement and the citizens of Ferguson, Mo., in the wake of the August 9 shooting death of teenager Michael Brown.

MTV’s spots are part of a larger campaign, Look Different, that the network developed in conjunction with organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza and the Southern Poverty Law Center. MTV has a long history of activist-oriented youth programming, and the Look Different program developed out of a paradox that MTV President Stephen Friedman told me he saw showing up in MTV polling.

“Eighty percent of our audience believes that bias is at the root of racism and prejudice,” Friedman said. “But when cultural explosions like Trayvon Martin, or the recent death on Staten Island, or what is now happening in Ferguson occur, our audience often feels paralyzed to discuss the issues.”

The reason? A good-intentioned schema for how to treat other people fairly that ultimately makes it more difficult to acknowledge unfairness or difference when it shows up anyway.

“Ironically, part of the problem is that this generation was taught to be color-blind,” Friedman told me. “As a result, they feel like they’re going to step on a land mine if they say the wrong thing. In fact, our research has shown that fully 70 percent of our white audience grew up not talking about race in their households. They’re striving for fairness and equality and often just aren’t sure how to to proceed.”

So Look Different uses tools like quizzes that try to flesh out the audience’s bias and a guide called “See That, Say This” to try to give viewers basic language to respond when their friends use racial stereotypes, make anti-affirmative action or anti-transgender comments, or say negative and unfair things about others’ sexual behavior. The “See This, Say That” guide is particularly clever, giving audiences options to be varying degrees of gentle or direct with their friends, and even giving them funny reaction .Gif files to use on social media.

The Ferguson spot MTV will run during the awards pre-show is a fairly basic extension of the Look Different campaign. It shows a range of young people, with voice overs describing the stereotypes they encounter, as panes of glass shatter against their faces. Stereotypes may not be able to stand up to the human reality, but that does not mean that they cannot inflict pain:

The spot that will run during the show is plainer — but even more effective.

Chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot,” the refrain that has become a hallmark of the protests against the policies that contributed both to Brown’s death at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson and to the military-style occupation of Ferguson that followed, echo as the camera focuses on a sign marking the boundary of Ferguson and noting the year the town was founded. Slowly, a quotation from James Baldwin is superimposed over the sign: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”


Of course, MTV gets a boost for its brand by appearing engaged with activism around Ferguson, too. But Friedman said he hoped the network’s role could be not just in drawing attention to its own projects, but also in lending its broadcasting capacity to the work activists are doing themselves: Part of the Look Different campaign is an effort to spotlight audience-created posts and to air them on MTV.

“Young people are using social media not just to spread news but to create powerful memes like ‘Hands Up Don’t Shoot,’ which are becoming the activist rallying points that echo around the country,” he said. “Memes and hashtags are the new megaphones … We believe that inviting the audience to define what they feel is positive action is an incredibly powerful way to help reshape norms around what equality and fairness mean today.”

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.