Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Learning from the activists

Published in Sep-Oct 2014
What brands can learn from activism.
Valuable lessons for marketers (from L to R): UNICEF placed ads in the freezer section of supermarkets to highlight the plight of Kashmiri children; Amnesty based its campaign on the Beijing Olympics to show China’s poor human rights record; and Greenpeace turned VW’s record breaking Darth Vader idea on its head to pinpoint environmental concerns.
Valuable lessons for marketers (from L to R): UNICEF placed ads in the freezer section of supermarkets to highlight the plight of Kashmiri children; Amnesty based its campaign on the Beijing Olympics to show China’s poor human rights record; and Greenpeace turned VW’s record breaking Darth Vader idea on its head to pinpoint environmental concerns.

The package arrived in the mail; it was addressed to me by name. Opening it with excitement as well as a sense of trepidation, I found inside a detailed description of what was required from me, aids to help me achieve my mission as well as a wealth of information about the task I had been assigned. Putting back its contents, realisation swept over me... I was being activated.

Don’t be confused, this isn’t a passage from a B grade spy novel. Rather it’s a true life experience. What you have just read is an account of the day I received a parcel from Greenpeace. I had signed up to join by sending in a letter, they responded with a thank you letter and then a few months later they sent me a starter pack to help me join their thousands of activists who are working in unison with the objective of stopping Japan from carrying out new whaling forays.

Greenpeace, Amnesty and a large number of rights organisations used to make the headlines for their unorthodox activities, going the extra mile to stop actions they considered to be wrong. These days, however, these champions of causes are making the news more for their savvy marketing and communication campaigns. In fact, some of these organisations not only have thousands of dedicated activists to rely on, they also employ some of the best names from the world of advertising. (For example, Amnesty’s anti-Beijing Olympics campaign was created by TBWA Paris.) So what can brands learn from these ‘non-marketers’ who are a thorn in the side of conventional marketers, thwarting their efforts and costing them millions of dollars in PR every year? For one, the rights brigade could well have invented guerrilla marketing. However that is not all that they have to their credit.

Communicate, don’t preach

The first thing any brand can learn from these non-marketers is how to communicate correctly. The tone they use has a sense of urgency, but it is also matter of fact and never condescending or patronising. Whether it’s a poster, a print ad, a video or an email, they know how to talk to their audience. Their communication is carefully worded and each word weighted to create the desired effect – action. On the other hand, look at the way brands go about getting their message across. It’s a different story altogether. Recently when I signed a petition, I almost immediately received an email to thank me and urge me to spread the word. For most brands, this kind of speedy response is rare.

The group whose petition I had signed realised that the perfect time to thank me for having done what they wanted was not a day later, but immediately. Of course, I felt good about the fact that they appreciated my gesture and yes, it made me want to become an advocate. Speaking of advocates, I will always remember what Sabeen Mahmud, the founder of T2F told the audience during her talk at Marketing 2.0. When asked how she built up the base of people coming to T2F, she replied that she took the time to reply to every single email and letter. Nowadays, consumers will accept if you use auto-responders to get back to them but again the tone should be suitable and not preachy or robotic.

Leverage technology

Why is it that groups such as Amnesty are more adept than brands at using new media and digital? The reason is because the mainstream media is controlled by corporate interests and these groups are unable to buy airtime, thus they have learnt to use all other available means to level the playing field. New media offers the advantages of low cost dissemination of information as well as the ability to create viral content. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter or a microsite, rights organisations know exactly what purpose each digital medium serves and how it ties in to the main goal. How many brands have that sort of clarity? These groups are also way ahead of brands in terms of experimentation. Brands and marketers experience a peculiar sense of inertia when it comes to choosing which channels to communicate with; rights groups have no such issues. When Greenpeace wanted to rebuild the Rainbow Warrior, they created an online version of the ship; people could donate to the project and see which part of the ship their funds would be used for.


Why is it that groups such as Amnesty are more adept than brands at using new media and digital? The reason is because the mainstream media is controlled by corporate interests and these groups are unable to buy airtime, thus they have learnt to use all other available means to level the playing field.

Be careful what you say

Sometimes, these non-marketers are able to use a brand’s award winning campaign for their own purposes. Yasir Riaz, a respected member of the local ad fraternity, as part of his presentation at Marketing 2.0, showed the audience an award- winning Dove campaign that asked parents not to let beauty companies talk to their daughters. However as he arrived straight from the office, just in time to present, Yasir didn’t know that Chris Schaumann (now Global Vice President, Digital & Social Marketing and CRM – Microsoft Mobile Device Marketing at Microsoft) had presented before him on the power of rights groups. Picking up on Dove’s platform of asking parents to keep daughters away from beauty companies, Greenpeace created a video pointing out that the makers of Dove were also the makers of Axe, a brand that portrayed girls as trophies to be conquered.

The point Schaumann was making was that although Dove’s platform was good, not everyone can get away with saying anything and go unpunished. An example of a viral ad which spawned a viral retort was the VW Superbowl ad, which showed a boy dressed up as Darth Vader trying to move objects. The ad was cute as the boy’s dad was using his remote control key to close the VW Passat thereby letting his son believe he did it with his ‘powers’. Greenpeace seized on the Darth Vader idea and made a video asking VW to move away from the dark side. Brands need to watch what they say lest they be caught out by the rights activists.

Creating context

If you want to make someone feel the pain of a child who is freezing to death, where would you place your ad? UNICEF, when faced with this problem placed their ads in the freezer sections of the supermarkets. Whether it’s painting the faces of missing people on street railings, so that they can only be seen from a distance or (as Amnesty did for the Beijing Olympics) creating print ads depicting human rights violations as ‘games’, these groups know how to raise the impact level of their advertising by creating context.

Marketers dream of creating advocates who feel passionate and committed to their brand. In order to succeed in this mission, they will need to adopt best practices from the non-marketers who are flexible and effective with a pittance of resources at their disposal.

Tyrone Tellis is a marketing professional working in Pakistan. tyrone.tellis@gmail.com