Do what needs doing vs start from where the people are

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

I’ve now read Tom & Tim’s book in full, and as someone who works in the context of a mainstream advertising agency, if not necessarily within the role of the average adman, I’m really struggling with this question.

I recently read Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”, of which rule number one is something along the lines of ‘Start from where the people are’.  And this is really the intuitive first rule of all communication.  To communicate with someone is to share a two-way process – you must engage at a shared starting point, and move forward from that point.  And let’s face it, the world we’re starting from isn’t immediately conducive to applying much of what Tom and Tim suggest on a mass scale – which I would argue is what is necessary.

By way of context, I would say that the advantage of my position is that I have the opportunity to start to bring this work into mainstream mass communications, and I believe it will be necessary to do this if this work is to gain a true foothold.  Major brands are getting further and further into our lives through greater and greater integration into the media we consume – this isn’t just advertising; PR is gaining strength as the business models which used to fund more authentic journalism fail, and brands are increasingly involved in the development of broadcast programming (a discipline known as advertiser-funded programming, or AFP), and even computer games.  This broad trend involves a lot of money, and is gaining pace.  So I believe we must find a way to undermine it, in order to open the door for identity campaigning in its purer forms, or this thinking will continue to be drowned out.  We need to create Trojan horses, which will be welcomed as gifts into the mainstream narrative, but can undermine it.  This is what it means to me to start from where the people are.

I have two thoughts on this which might help Tom and Tim’s thinking work ‘from the inside’.

First, that we can trust Nature to do some of the work for herself, if you’ll forgive the personalisation briefly.  If we can find ways to use brand marketing budgets to get people outside and into nature, we will allow the contact hypothesis work to take hold – but we don’t necessarily have to start by getting people to undertake tree breathing exercises, as per the ‘tester’ link on the Natural Change project’s website.  I can imagine many brands selling more products and services in the immediate term by encouraging people outside; but more people spending more time outside will mean more people discovering more of the joys of nature, and taking that journey further and further, thus in the short-medium term undermining the dominant narrative.  Persil’s ‘Dirt is good’ campaign springs to mind as a useful example.

Second, that there may be more immediately accessible value shifts that we can start to effect, without yet being ready to spring to an inclusion of nature within human identity.  A reversal of the trend towards individualisation, and instead building community, and making altruism cool, strikes me as something brand marketing budgets could certainly be part of.  People who are more altruistic are more sociable, and products and services such as mobile communications and much besides could easily tap into this; but people who are more altruistic are also broadening their definition of self, and therefore undermining the dominant narrative once again.  Sunday is Big Lunch day, not a bad example in itself of something brands are involved in on a commercial basis; Orange RockCorps is another good case in point, where young people get a gig ticket in return for voluntary service.

Of course, these things are only ever going to be part of the solution, and will need to work in tandem with such excellent initiatives as Rosemary’s Carbon Conversations.  But I feel we need to find ways to work with the tools of the present context in order to weaken it, in order for the charge from the ‘outside’ to be effective.  I use analogies to the Trojan War altogether too often (I am a Classics graduate after all), but I think they are appropriate here!

PS – I must admit to feeling slightly tentative at putting these views forward to such an academically proficient audience, so please treat them as they’re intended – in a genuine spirit of questioning, and search for the answers we all hope to find!

Jon AlexanderDo what needs doing vs start from where the people are


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  • Graham Game - July 19, 2009 reply

    I hear exactly what you are saying. We must be careful though about immersing people in nature – we know from experience that they need to be guided out there because most people find nature an alien & dangerous place until they experience otherwise. The trouble is that is very labour-intensive / costly. Is there the time to save the planet one person at a time?

  • Jim - July 20, 2009 reply

    Its possible (if not common- look in the mirror) to be a in-tune with nature person and still have an enormous environmental impact. As many researchers (e.g. Sam Ham) have pointed out attitude is not necessarily good predictor of behaviour. What are we trying to acheive with IC? Is it that we want to shift attitudes sufficiently to allow change to be voted in or enacted by a radical govt? It IC about getting people to vote for less stuff in the realisation that it can give more in other ways?

  • Jon Alexander - July 20, 2009 reply

    I think Tom would say that values underlie both attitudes and behaviours… but will let him pick up on that point should he choose to do so.
    My specific take in response to both these comments is that we need to do lots of different things though – and all under the banner of identity campaigning. It might, for example, be my role to use mainstream marketing budgets to help a load of people become more willing to head out into the natural world… it’s then someone else’s job (Graham?!) to make sure there are appropriate support structures etc for them to go to, and to design these such that ideally they are self-propagating (i.e. that once you’ve been ‘introduced’ to the natural world, you’ll want to do the same for others).

  • Tom - July 21, 2009 reply

    Jon, Jim, Graham,

    Thanks so much for this. I really hope that the stuff Tim and I have written doesn’t come over as ‘purist’. I agree completely, Jon, that we have to engage people ‘where we find them’. It’s just that so often, this is taken to mean, ‘accept the worldview people express now as something which it is futile to try to shift’.

    So I think that marketing techniques – viewed dispassionately as a set of highly sophisticated communication tools – are crucially important in the course of reaching out to people.

    But what do we do having reached out – do we reaffirm the values people express where we find them, or do we work to bring particular values to the fore? For me, it has to be the latter.

    So I really ‘get’ the importance of using marketing techniques to reach out to people (by analogy, John Grant wrote somewhere about the power of the Alpha Course for getting people into church to discuss Christianity. This was an effective marketing campaign that certainly wasn’t run with a view to leaving people as they were found!)

    But what bothers me is how to capitalise on the use of marketing techniques in this way when they are used as part of a commercial marekting campaign. It’s here that I see conflicts emerging.

    But, that said, I’m left really unsure in the light of the discussion around the Ford advert on this site. Might there be benefits to using commerical marketing to promote intrinsic values?

    I really don’t know. What is clear to me is that some of Jon’s work in using marketing techniques in a not-for-profit context to try to encourage people to ‘get out there’ and ‘reconnect’ seems crucially important.

    On Jim’s point about the values/behaviour gap, the evidence seems clearer. Values do influence behaviour profoundly (and, as he says, vice versa).

  • Jon Alexander - July 28, 2009 reply

    I still tend to think that patently untrue claims are counter-productive. The reason why intrinsic values are important is because they will lead to positive behaviour change… but if we associate intrinsic values with negative/nil behaviour change, we make it possible to hold the value without performing the behaviour… so creating more people like the pet-lovers and ramblers you mention in the section on Value Confrontation, who have the values somewhere inside them, but do not act consistently with them.

    In the meantime, here’s an interesting and positive one, something I’ve just raised with the BBC… the growing phenomenon of forest music gigs…
    Recent highlights include Paul Weller playing a clearing in Sherwood Forest.

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