Making Social Critique Go Viral

October 19, 2017; Campaigns and Elections

They used to pejoratively call them “publicity stunts.” Now, it’s called “going viral,” which sounds less manipulative. But the impact is the same—generating broad public interest in, and support for, a cause by inspiring people in a way that dry research and statistics cannot.

More advocacy nonprofits may need to learn how to do it, and they can learn something from this account in Campaigns & Elections, a publication that covers politics. The story is told by a pair of writers who were involved in crafting one such stunt:

Lawmakers and journalists on Capitol Hill were recently surprised by an activist dressed as the Monopoly Man, also known as Rich Uncle Pennybags, sitting directly behind former Equifax CEO Richard Smith during a Senate Banking Committee hearing. The stunt drew online attention as the Monopoly Man was seen wiping his brow with an oversized hundred-dollar bill and even chasing down Smith with a bag of money after the hearing.

The writers go on to say that Monopoly Man and the delivery of Get-Out-of-Jail-Free cards to all 100 Senate offices got a lot of online attention. “We struck a nerve,” they wrote. They began with the understanding that many Americans of all political stripes are unhappy with corporate influence and then played into those populist sentiments by mocking an out-of-touch financial CEO at a normally staid congressional hearing.

They came up with Rich Uncle Pennybags as a “familiar face…By placing this character in the foreground of a well-covered congressional hearing, it intuitively called attention to the issues we were trying to promote…The message was implicit in the situation—no explanation was necessary.” They point out that “American culture is filled with familiar characters, imagery and symbolism that could be deployed to make a powerful political statement without saying a word.”

This is an effective and refreshing alternative to the typical approach most progressive advocates employ—dryly presenting research, facts, numbers, statistics, and logical arguments. But as any good political operative will explain, rationalism is often ineffective at best, and counterproductive at worst, when communicating with the general public. In this case, “The Monopoly Man, the Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card and the bags of fake money told a powerful and accessible story that regular people could relate to, even if they didn’t know much of anything about Equifax or forced arbitration.”

Publicity stunts take careful planning and work. The authors explain how interns held spots in line early in the morning to guarantee seats directly behind Smith, and they thoroughly researched the rules of conduct for audiences in a congressional hearing, so they knew what is tolerated versus what gets you tossed out.

Our Rich Uncle Pennybags grabbed press attention with an on-camera display that juxtaposed extreme opposites: the serious and the silly; the obscure and the iconic; the mundane and the extraordinary; the corrupt and the pure; even reality and cartoon. Instead of drawing attention through disruption, the Monopoly Man capitalized on the power of distraction.

[…]

The Monopoly Man’s appearance made people laugh and want to learn more. Rather than having it force fed to them in a press release, Twitter users and reporters discovered this quirky character for themselves.

The groups organizing the stunt posted supplemental materials online, did “dozens” of press interviews and live Twitter exchanges, and drew over 1.2 million views on Reddit. After Rich Uncle Pennybags caught the public’s attention, the organizers followed up with talking points and fact sheets, press lists, email delivery systems, tweeting, and staff availability.

The authors encourage nonprofit advocates to “study what worked and why, and then use it to plan for future successes.” It all just reinforces what effective political leaders have always known—in order to be successful, you have to capture both the hearts and minds of the people. Numbers alone won’t do that; just as with fundraising, you have to tell good stories in a compelling manner that inspires support.—Larry Kaplan