The Marketing of Dissent
Opposition: New & Improved?

By Kay Neth

Can you make dissent marketable? It's not an easy thing, to tell the world "No War" and have your voice heard.

Activists have hung banners across the façades of buildings (and faced arrest), carried handmade signs high above their heads during protests, chanted slogans, built elaborate papier-mâché puppets-all generally with the hope of winning mainstream news coverage: a few seconds of airtime here, a few lines of text there. Now, some anti-war activists have embraced a longstanding American tradition, one generally associated with the marketing of cars, colas, clothes and Nike: groups opposed to war are advertising. They want to reach the elusive "mainstream"-hence, non-activists, an audience that may be apathetic, uninformed or pro-war.

The Not in Our Name anti-war and civil liberties project has taken out several full-page newspaper ads across the country, including the Dec. 29 Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer Sunday edition (see related story on p. 16). The ads include the project's Statement of Conscience and the names of well-known cultural figures who have signed it-a nod to the ethos of celebrity endorsement. More significantly, the ads are considered a means of reaching people whom volunteers would otherwise miss-the people who don't go to anti-war rallies, who didn't participate in the massive Jan. 20 Martin Luther King Jr. march, but who do read the Sunday paper. "PRESIDENT BUSH has declared: 'You're either with us or against us,'" the ads read. "Here is our answer: NOT IN OUR NAME."
Advertising generally tells you where to buy what's being sold; anti-war ads tell you where to go to get involved. NION's ads include the local group's Web site (notinourname-seattle.net) and phone number (206-984-6256).

You might have caught ads sponsored by the Church Council of Greater Seattle, which appeared on 70 King County Metro buses on Jan. 7. The campaign was produced with assistance from Sound Nonviolent Opponents of War.

Each ad offers a warning-"War Kills the Innocent"-looming beneath the faces of three smiling Iraqi girls. A Web address, noiraqwar.info, and toll-free number, 1-866-NO-IRAQ-WAR, appear on the ads. The site includes a link to SNOW's Web page. You can call the number to learn more about the campaign or make a donation.

The signs, approximately 2 X 5 feet and rendered in full-color, were given a four-week run. During that time, they were expected to be viewed by an estimated 337,000 people at least once a day. The cost: $140 per ad, which put the campaign's total price at $9,800. "Within the course of 10 days, over $15,000 was raised," says SNOW volunteer Howard Gale. "And this was just through an email. This was not through any serious fundraising." By mid-January, organizers received enough donations to buy a second batch of 70 ads, which will appear on buses through most of February. In Olympia, the same ads began an eight-week run on Jan. 15. And a similar campaign is expected to start in Kitsap.

MoveOn, a Web-based political advocacy group, brought its message to television with an anti-war commercial themed "Let the Inspections Work." The 30-second spot purposefully echoed Lyndon Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign ad (commonly known as "Daisy"), which aired once and attracted substantial news coverage, as well as controversy.

Both commercials began with a young girl idly pulling petals off a daisy, and both ended on an ominous note, with the image of an atomic mushroom cloud. Whereas the original ad attempted to connect the possibility of a Barry Goldwater presidency with nuclear holocaust, MoveOn suggested that war with Iraq would create a new nuclear threat. "War with Iraq: Maybe it will end quickly," speculated the ad's arch voice-over. "Maybe not. Maybe it will spread. Maybe extremists will take over countries with nuclear weapons."
The ad appeared for a week, starting Jan. 16. Before it aired, MoveOn featured the commercial on its Web site (moveon.org) and held press confer-ences about its TV campaign. Like the 1964 ad, the new commercial drew media attention-but in this case, coverage (read: publicity) came prior to the ad being aired during the slots MoveOn had paid for. In other words, the advertising got free advertising.
MoveOn President Wes Boyd has said that the ad is designed to be controversial and inspire debate. Los Angeles and Boston TV markets reportedly rejected the commercial, which was intended to air in 12 major U.S. cities, including Seattle. Ads appeared on cable, particularly on news channels such as CNN.

The campaign was funded with donations. MoveOn had asked supporters for a five-figure sum to create a series of newspaper ads. Within days, $400,000 had poured in, and organizers decided to take their advertising to TV. At press time, MoveOn was attempting to pull in $40,000 more in donations-to buy airtime during the Super Bowl.

Will advertising allow MoveOn and anti-war activists efforts to reach a mainstream audience, as they hope? Bus ads and television spots limit anti-war messages to the depth of a sound bite, but they also allow activists control over how their messages are represented to the public. And, within their tight parameters, they can employ the same tactic used in most advertising you see-namely, an appeal to the heart, if not the head.

NION's full-page ads allow a little more room for argumentation: Its Statement of Conscience is a 1000-word critique of the U.S. government's foreign policy and attack on civil liberties since 9/11. The Seattle NION has received several calls in response to its Dec. 29 ad.

The bus ads have also generated a response. Hundreds have visited www.noiraqwar.info; the toll-free number registered a smaller response with 10 calls. And the campaign may have started a trend: Gale says he's been contacted by people in California, Maryland, North Carolina and Wisconsin who want to start bus ad campaigns in their communities.

As for MoveOn, its membership increased by 100,000 the week the Daisy commercial aired.

Regardless of the space or time purchased, the advertising of ideas, as opposed to commodities, is tricky. In November 2002, Ad Age columnist Bob Garfield criticized a lengthy, globally aired U.S. State Department commercial, portraying an America that embraces its Muslim citizens. However, as Garfield noted, what Muslims abroad want is not U.S. acceptance but real social, economic and political change within and beyond their own countries' borders.

"Marketing-whether of toothpaste or political ideas-isn't about putting the best face on that which you wish to sell," Garfield wrote. "It is about discovering what the target audience wants and making available what they wish to buy." If that's true, then ads can't sell the idea of "No War" to those who aren't interested in challenging war to begin with. In the case of anti-war ads, marketing research may be substituted with a suspicion or hope that the targeted audiences, even if they haven't considered the matter, don't want war, or don't want to hurt innocent Iraqis. In that case, the ads can remind viewers that not attacking Iraq is an option, despite the dominant strains of government rhetoric that appear in media.

So, anti-war advertising may find mainstream support. They may even help opposition to war look mainstream, as normal as, say, taking the bus.

Even if the ads only resonate with those who already agree with their message, anti-war groups might enjoy increased support by attracting volunteers, or even donations-which wouldn't hurt. Advertising can offer a little foil for government spin, which gets covered in the press frequently and for free. But when you have to pay for your forum, dissent doesn't come cheap.