ADVOCACY: Marketing Justice Without Selling Out
This article originally appeared in Issue# 37
"Bumperstickers $1, Nuclear-Free Zone Window Decals 2/$1, Buttons 2/$1.25. Complete Organizer's Kit, $5.00."
This ad for a group called Nukewatch is only a mild version of the promotional efforts of social justice campaigns in recent years. Live Aid, Mother Jones sweepstakes and Hands Across America, among others, have adopted the marketing techniques of product advertising on a much grander scale. Surely this poses a Faustian dilemma: how far can a justice campaign go in selling itself before it sells out?
It is understandable that progressive organizations would resort to Madison Avenue gimmicks. In getting their message out, they are competing with an overwhelming mass media environment in which people are hit with hundreds of pitches every day. How to make Sanctuary or Affordable Housing or Better Children's TV stand out?
This past summer Amnesty International resorted to a Hollywood-type extravaganza; a carefully orchestrated series of events nationwide, culminating in a televised rock concert heavily laden with commercial messages. Such efforts are not necessarily inappropriate and may indeed be essential to an organization's ability to continue. However, there is a real danger lurking here of losing substance amid the spectacle.
Large expenditures of resources may be involved in which an organization's success may be measured by the number of donations it receives. As fund raisers take on greater and greater authority, justice campaigns can be hurt to the core. What happens when realization of a certain goal requires joining forces with those who are part of the problem? An example of this was the transformation of Hands Across America in the last weeks before the event. In order to find enough hands, the sponsors embraced corporate support which eventually took center stage. Proof that the event was politically innocuous came the moment Ronald Reagan joined the line, only a week after he told an astonished public that there was no significant hunger in America!
There is a fine line between efforts to attract publicity and an excessive emphasis on advertising. The point is to use the medium without losing the message. In this way, social reformers must aim to excite without being cute and to organize without resorting to slick slogans and promises.