How to challenge Capitalism
By Niels Arnbak on December 6, 2011
A few months ago I attended a debate by Onbegane Grond about the relation between art and activism. The question was whether art should save the world.
As the debate unfolded the panel divided itself into two camps. On the one hand, there were the activists who felt that artists have the responsibility to make the world a better place through their work. And then, there were the artists who see activist themes as a great inspiration to make art. They were only interested in the artistic value of their work – not in its effect.
This prompted me to pose the hypothesis that activist campaigns would be better off in the hands of advertisers than in the hands of artists. After all, the advertiser is much more experienced in crafting effective communication. He tries to engage the masses, rather than just a niche of art connoisseurs.
It was a shame that there was not much time to discuss this hypothesis. But I think that the case for it has grown stronger over the last couple of months, because of what is probably the most effective activist campaign in recent history: The Occupy movement.
The Occupy movement was initiated by Adbusters, an award-winning magazine with an anti-capitalist agenda. The magazine looks as polished as advertising and makes use of the same techniques to promote social change: Simple, single-minded, powerful communication. Adbusters published their big idea and the hashtag #OccupyWallStreet, supported it with the right visuals and social media did the rest. It came as no surprise when I learned that its founder, Kalle Lasn, is a retired marketing consultant.
Of course there are many more examples where the techniques of advertising have come in handy for activists. The Yes Men, for example, stage prolific hoaxes where they launch whitewashing campaigns in the name of big corporations. They use the same tone of voice and visual style, which makes the media believe that the corporation is really behind it. When the media calls to confirm, the corporation is forced to publicly respond on the issue, increasing the effectiveness of the campaign.
Steven de Jong recently suggested in the Dutch newspaper NRC that the Occupy movement should protest against advertisers. This was a strange suggestion. Not only because his column is partly funded by advertising, but also because it seems rather ineffective to change the minds of the consumerist masses through a protest against advertisers. Rather than protesting against advertisers, the activists should become advertisers. To learn the tricks of their trade. To hijack their messages. To join them, because they are hard to beat. Especially when it comes to engaging an otherwise apathetic crowd.