Marketing a Movement

Right now The Canary Project, a climate change-focused art and design collective I co-founded, is raising money from its supporters to buy up public ad space in San Francisco and give it over to artwork from our latest project, Green Patriot Posters.  We are working with a great new start-up called LoudSauce and their mission is to “transform the medium of advertising from one that primarily drives consumption to one of civic participation.”

From our very first project, The Canary Project has been interested in the possibilities of co-opting ad space. And at times we talk about what we do in terms of branding.  This is particularly true with the Green Patriot Posters campaign and book.  The explicit aim of Green Patriot Posters is to improve the brand of the sustainability movement.  We want to connect with younger people and give the damn thing some edge and urgency.  Because the climate is changing fast and so is China, but we aren’t.

This past summer, just about the time that we were finalizing the essay for the book in which we make this claim, organizer and Harvard professor Marshal Ganz nearly convinced me that we had it totally wrong.   His argument was that to adopt a marketing mind is to kill a movement, and a movement is precisely what sustainability needs.  Marketing, Ganz argued, caters to desire, it follows.  But a movement requires leadership, a moral core, a connection to values that changes people, not simply gives them what they want (i.e. happy visions of a comfy world).  A movement is slower, more local and based on narrative, not fragments.  A movement is based on community, not self-gratification.

So, marketing or movement? What is it going to be?… Hmm.  It suddenly seemed as if two hands were offering us a choice.

But, actually it’s not like that.  Ganz is undoubtedly right on the main point.  We need a movement – a movement that looks a lot like… well, the Tea Party – a social force that can make a congressman sweat his job security if he don’t get with the program.  Yet, we believe marketing is part of this process not opposed to it.  Marketing, in the sense of images and slogans, draws people in.  It persuades.

Take the Obama campaign of which Ganz was such a large part.  It would not have succeeded without the elements of a movement that Ganz isolates:  a strong narrative, values, leadership and local grassroots organizing.  That was the core, the true heart of the campaign.  Yet, to disseminate this vision widely, to make it catch fire, required packaging.  For example: Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster.

Just because Fairey’s poster was catchy, artistic, simple and strong does not mean it was not true.  It is a constructive, not deconstructive, art. It is iconic and distilled a message to its most communicable form.  But that communication was about something real, valuable, and value-based.  It was not fatuous or craven.  And that is the key difference.  Marketing in the service of truth and love is marketing in the service of a movement.

Our SanFransicsco partner, LoudSauce’s mission, “transform the medium of advertising from one that primarily drives consumption to one of civic participation,” is all about that sort of messaging, which is why we are not shy about asking you to support them and their campaign to get Green Patriot Posters (including one of Fairey’s) up on bus kiosks. The culture and behavior around sustainability has reached a certain plateau. Strong design and mainstream ad space can help reach beyond the same usual suspects to the rest of the culture. Large brands know this well and have helped shape our current mainstream culture.  Let’s do this from the ground up and shape our own culture.

Michael Beirut wrote about the Green Patriot Posters project in our October 2010 issue.

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