Playing With the Enemy

Having fun with your activism is a crucial strategy to having impact. It not only helps you enjoy your work, it attracts attention, recruits support and cuts through your opponents defenses.
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Having fun with your activism is a crucial strategy to having impact. No matter how serious the issue or the struggle, people across the centuries have punctured the inflated sense of power and authority of their opponents with humor, mischief and subversion. That has been true whether the target of resistance was unjust laws, illegitimate governments or misbehaving companies. It not only helps you enjoy your work, it attracts attention, recruits support and cuts through your opponents defenses.

A few years ago I was involved in a campaign to stop companies doing business with the military dictatorship in Burma - in support of Burma's democrats who had called for foreign companies to disinvest.

We used to request very politely (and in private) that an offending company withdraw their business. If they refused, we would launch a campaign. One European company, producing men and women's underwear, told us they were staying in Burma despite our request that they leave. As a result we had no choice but to go for their undergarments. A photograph of a female model wearing a barbed wire bra was produced (no model was harmed during the making of the image). We needed a tagline saying what a bra maker should be doing, and what it shouldn't. The result was: "Support Breasts not Dictators!"

The 'Support Breasts' image was picked up widely across the press, with accompanying stories of the lingerie company's business ties with the Burmese regime. Not long after the company pulled out of Burma.

We also produced an image of a male model's butt wearing a pair of eye watering barbed wire briefs. For that one we came up with: "Support Genitals not Generals!" Unfortunately it never got used.

One of our campaigns was against an international tobacco company that was in business with the Burmese junta. For that we produced a mock cigarette ad, with a photo of two Burmese soldiers emerging from the jungle armed and dangerous. Their uniforms and helmets were decked out in the logos of the cigarette brands owned by the tobacco company. In sponsorship terms these two boys were the military equivalent of Nadal and Djokovic. With a range of similar tactics over an eleven month campaign, the tobacco company pulled out of Burma.

We were a small campaign of only four staff and the companies we targeted were often big multinationals. But because of the publicity we were able to generate people often thought we were a much bigger operation. We'd even get phone calls from people asking to be put through to our press department, or to speak to someone in marketing. Sometimes we transferred the calls to each other so not to disappoint. As they say, it's not the size of the dog in the fight its the size of the fight in the dog -- and I like to think we had a little bit of fox in us too.

In any campaign it's also crucial to talk about your successes - both to the potential recruits to your campaign as well as your potential targets. The worst recruitment pitch I've heard from activists attempting to win new supporters is that they've been campaigning on the issue for years and it's getting worse all the time... Then why would anyone want to join you! By making our successes known to companies working in Burma, we were able to persuade many of them to pull out without even launching a campaign. That's when you know your strategy is working.

• John Jackson will be speaking as part of the Yes Lab's Creative Activism Thursday series on 27 October, in New York.

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