4. How Marketing Works: An Activist Case Study

The September 20, 2005 issue of The New Yorker offered a report on an evening vigil in New York City memorializing the (at that time) more than 1,000 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis who had died in the second Gulf War. Here’s an excerpt:

While the crowd shrank to a few dozen, watched over by a handful of policemen, some protesters attempted to engage passersby. “Come join us, no matter what you think of the war,” [Jane Doe] pleaded. “These are the dead.” [Doe], a performance artist with R. Crumb hair who lives in the East Village, was having no luck recruiting people. “They just think we’re obnoxious, like we’re saying, ‘Come love Jesus,’ ” she said.

Patricia McHugh took a different approach. A gray-haired librarian who lives in the neighborhood, she was pronouncing the names of the dead, and their ages, with unusual precision. She spoke not into the center of the dwindling crowd of protesters but outside the circle, into the faces of those pedestrians who would consent to meet her gaze. She got strong responses, she reported, especially from young men. “When I say the name of a young American man, and his age, to young males, they get it immediately.”

(I changed the name of the first activist to spare her further embarrassment. She was doing her best, after all, and also deserves credit for being candid about her lack of success.)

This anecdote shows both good and bad marketing in action. I don’t know if Patricia McHugh ever studied marketing, or whether she did some conscious market strategizing before she participated in the vigil, but she is clearly an ace marketer. Here are the three basic marketing steps again, with an explanation of how she succeeded at them:

1. Identify the group of customers (“target market” or “market segment”) most likely to buy your product. What McHugh did: She surmised that, out of all of the diverse people passing by on the streets of New York, young men of approximately the same ages as most of the dead soldiers responded most strongly to her message about the human cost of the war. Although this seems obvious in hindsight, it probably wasn’t at the time. McHugh could have aimed her message at, for instance, baby boomers who lived through the Vietnam War years, and are old enough to be the parents of the dead soldiers.

Or, like many of the other activists in her group, she could have targeted no one, keeping her gaze directed inward into “the center of the dwindling crowd of protestors.” As someone who has participated in demonstrations and vigils, I know how scary it can be to reach out to strangers, but doing so is the very essence of effective activism. In contrast, maintaining your focus safely on your “already converted” colleagues is a perfect example of ineffective activism and “preaching to the choir.”

2. Rework (“repackage”) your product so that it will appeal even more to those customers. What McHugh did: She shrewdly mentioned not just the name but the age of each dead soldier—crucial information that provided the “bridge” her audience needed to identify strongly with her message.3

Also, unlike Jane Doe and perhaps the other activists, McHugh didn’t beg, plead or cajole her audience into caring about her viewpoint. Nor did she frighten them with the demand that they “come join us.” Rather, McHugh spoke directly to the experience and perspective of her “customers,” and made no excessive demands on them. As a result, they let down their fear, skepticism and other barriers to communication, and were receptive to her message.

3. Connect the customers with your product via a marketing campaign consisting of advertising, public relations, Internet marketing, word of mouth and/or other tactics. What McHugh did: Much of this work was done prior to the start of the vigil, by the activists who decided the format of the event, when and where it would be held, and how it would be publicized. But McHugh improved on the event’s format, not just with her focus on the passersby, but with her clear enunciation, which catches people’s attention and heightens the importance of what you are saying. Even McHugh’s personal appearance, as we’ll see in the next chapter, probably contributed to her ability to connect with her audience.


I’ll be discussing the three marketing steps in greater detail starting in Chapter 21.