In Defense of Stunts and Spectacles

Just read an article that endorsed creative protest as a social change tactic; was inspired to write the following ...

For too long, stunts, spectacles, street theater and such have been spurned by supporters of social change!  

Twenty years of working for and with nonprofits on organizing, advocacy, lobbying, outreach, raising awareness, and public education have convinced me that stunts can be serious tools of social change. (If you do them right.) Silliness can be used to spotlight the surreal level of injustice promoted by a particular public policy: Activists can use stunts to get the attention of media, hold people’s attention to issues they might otherwise ignore, and use the attention they attract to make corporations and politicians more accountable to their (activists’) constituencies. And stunts are affordable - more affordable than producing and running TV ads, organizing a statewide lobby day, etc.  

Some people worry that stunts are tacky and unprofessional. These folks confuse poorly planned stunts with those that are part of – and shaped by - a larger organizing/advocacy campaign strategy, convey a persuasive message backed by thorough research, and are well-executed.

So, to all of you citizen activists: Supplement your social change campaigns with some strategic silly. Some spoof. Some spunk! Here are some hypothetical examples:

  • A pro-austerity lawmaker is scheduled to speak at a lunch meeting. Immediately before the lunch, 75 anti-austerity activists gather outside of the restaurant where the meeting takes place. They give arriving meeting attendees to-go boxes on which are written “I’ll eat what you can’t finish! Save your scraps for me!” (Inside the boxes is information about their views on austerity.) They chant, “Shared sacrifice - it sounds so nice! ‘Til all you eat is beans and rice!” and “Balanced approach – a bipartisan feat! Now we don’t have enough to eat!”  

  • Citizens disappointed by their lawmaker’s pro-austerity stance buy a full page of ad space in the community/local newspaper of the lawmaker’s home town. They use the space to feature a “Shared Sacrifice Pledge.” It says something like this: We, the undersigned, in the spirit of sharing sacrifice with filthy rich corporate CEOs and out-of-touch politicians, vow that from this day forward:
    • We will abstain from spending $1.22 million on remodeling our offices (including a $35,000 commode-on-legs) as did then-Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain a few years ago;
    • We will not buy and drink $350 bottles of wine, which austerity champion Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his pals were seen doing in 2011;
    • We will buy only as many houses as we need (unlike NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who owns 11 residences), and spend no more than $32 million per house (unlike Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, whose most recent purchase cost $32.5 million);
    • No $1000 t-shirts for us;
    • No $400 hair-cuts for us;
    • And so on.   

  • An advocacy group (let’s call it Economic Justice for All) is dissatisfied with a lawmaker’s work on income inequality. The group holds a bake sale outside of the lawmaker’s office. They hang a big banner to call attention to their sale; it says “Help Economic Justice for All to Eradicate poverty in Washington State – One Cookie at a Time.”

Get silly, activists! Because you mean business.