1. What Activism Is—or Should Be

Activism is the act of influencing a person or group of people with the goal of eliciting a desired behavioral change. That change might be that the person votes for your candidate or ballot initiative; joins, donates to or participates more fully in your organization; or adopts a new habit such as energy conservation or vegetarianism.

The word behavioral is crucial because it is behavioral change, not simply a change of heart or mind, that leads to a more progressive society. Some activists don’t get this; they think they’ve done their job if they can get their audience to agree with them. As meaningful as agreement is, however, and as good as it feels to both you and your audience, it does not in itself change the status quo: only behavioral change does. Getting your audience to change their behavior is harder than simply getting them to agree with you, but a dedicated activist will work diligently toward that goal, knowing that it will benefit not just the planet and society but, as I discuss below, the individual himself or herself.

Two other activities that aim to influence people with the goal of changing their behavior are marketing and sales. These are anathema to many activists, who consider them inherently exploitative, and the essence, really, of all that’s wrong with capitalism. There’s some truth to this viewpoint, but it is also somewhat of an oversimplification, since marketing and sales can, in fact, be used non-exploitatively and to positive ends. In business classes, and in this section of The Lifelong Activist, I teach what is called “consultative sales,” where you’re not manipulating the customer, but working alongside of him to arrive at a solution to a serious need he has. That need might be “I need a computer,” “I need a birthday gift for my girlfriend,” or “I need a government that represents the interests of everyone, and not just the top one percent.” The salesperson’s/activist’s job, in consultative sales, is not to manipulate the customer but to guide him toward an informed choice, and the outcome is not zero-sum, but win-win: the customer gets what he needs, and the salesperson/activist gets what she needs, be it cash, a vote or a petition signature.

The bottom line is that activism is, or should be, marketing and sales. Meaning, that you should use the same marketing and sales techniques that corporations use to sell products to sell your activist cause, and progressivism in general. You should, moreover, use these techniques wholeheartedly and without shame or embarrassment, for two main reasons:

1. Modern marketing and sales are, literally, the most powerful persuasive techniques ever devised.

They are responsible for the fact that hundreds of millions of people around the globe willingly eat at McDonald’s, listen to Madonna or U2, wear Nikes and use Microsoft Windows.

These techniques are too powerful to ignore and, in fact, it is folly to do so—folly, and a disservice to those on whose behalf we say we’re working. This is especially true given that our opposition generally embraces marketing and sales wholeheartedly, and uses them to powerful effect.1

In her book Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizing (see Bibliography), activist Linda Stout says:

It is important for [activist] organizations to have a marketing plan. Marketing is usually thought of in terms of selling products. But I think of marketing as figuring out how to talk about your work and get the message of what you are doing across to particular groups of people. When you are organizing, you are literally marketing a message.

All successful activists do, in fact, use marketing and sales, even if they don’t recognize or identify their activities as such. Fundraising and volunteer-recruitment are quite obviously marketing and sales endeavors, but so is any activity where you seek to persuade others. That’s why, throughout this section of The Lifelong Activist, I am able to quote business experts and activist experts side-by-side, giving essentially the same advice.

2. What corporate marketing and sales harms, progressive marketing and sales heals.

Many progressives believe that ubiquitous corporate marketing has largely replaced authentic expressions of identity, culture and community, resulting in a citizenry that is alienated from self and others. Corporations create that alienation, then profit when they sell people on the (false) idea that buying things will heal the alienated, hurting soul.

That’s not what you are doing when you market and sell progressivism, however. What you’re doing is offering a cure for that alienation.

Convince someone to support a progressive cause and you help heal society.

Convince someone to become an activist, with all the self-determination and self-expression and community that that role encompasses, and you help heal him.

How to Save the World

Sometimes, the healing referred to in point #2 extends beyond “emotional” and “community” healing to actual physical healing. That was certainly the case with one of the most successful activist movements of recent decades, the AIDS treatment movement. In the early and mid 1980s, AIDS remained a terrifying mystery. Because it preyed mainly on gays and drug users, it was considered by many a “disreputable” disease; and it wasn’t until mid-1987—nearly the end of his second presidential term—that Ronald Reagan finally gave a public address on the epidemic. Jerry Falwell and others even claimed that AIDS was God’s retribution for the supposedly sinful homosexual lifestyle.

Needless to say, there was little societal impetus to fund a cure—until a vocal and determined activist community started demanding one. Many of these activists worked in fields related to marketing: for instance, the group of six activists that created the famous “Silence=Death” pink triangle included a book designer and two art directors.2

The achievements of these activists were stunning. First, they succeeded in largely removing the stigma from AIDS and making it a topic of general conversation. That in itself made life much more bearable for many AIDS sufferers. The activists also managed to educate Americans—and, later, much of the rest of the world—on the need for, and mechanics of, AIDS prevention and safe sex. Finally, these activists managed to focus the attention of the medical establishment on AIDS, and to garner substantial funding for research into the disease and its treatment, resulting in the development of azidothymidine (AZT) and other palliative drugs.

While it’s true that AIDS remains a vast problem, especially in Africa, there is no denying the spectacular achievement of these “first-generation” AIDS activists whose work saved millions of lives. They serve as an inspiration to all progressive activists.

So, for your sake, the sake of those around you, and the sake of the planet, please market and sell your progressive ideals boldly and effectively.

The rest of this section of The Lifelong Activist tells you how. First, in Chapters 2 through 23, I discuss some fundamental principles you need to know to market effectively. Then, in Chapters 24 through 36, I discuss sales.

Of course, marketing and sales are highly complex endeavors, about which entire libraries have been written, so what follows is necessarily just an overview. See the Bibliography for suggestions for follow-up reading.

A Customer by Any Other Name . . .

Yes, I sometimes use the word “customer” in this part of The Lifelong Activist to refer to your audience, or the person or persons whom you are trying to influence. This may sound odd, in an activist context, but it’s hard to talk about marketing and sales without at least occasionally using that word. I also find that using it reminds us that, when we are doing activism, what we really are, or should be, doing is marketing and sales.

For the same reasons, I sometimes use the word “product” to describe your activist cause, and “sales” or “selling” to describe your activism.

Many progressives are familiar with the term social marketing. As far as I can tell, it is basically a synonym for plain old marketing and sales done non-exploitatively in the service of a progressive or otherwise socially beneficial cause. I think it betrays a certain ambivalence about marketing and sales, however, and so I refrain from using it in this book.

Whether you use the term “social marketing” or not, please be unambivalent and bold when doing your marketing and sales.