Marketing 101 for Activists

Written by Chris Kanthan. Posted in Education

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Published on May 16, 2013 with 3 Comments


By Chris Kanthan

May 17, 2013

If you have ever been to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, there is one thing that you would have noticed for sure. No, I am not talking about the babes and the beads. I am referring to a bunch of guys holding signs like “Repent” and “Trust Jesus, He Hates Sin.” Millions of drunk guys and gals have walked by these sincere advocates, but how many people do you think instantly dropped their shots and accepted Jesus into their hearts?

Whatever you are preaching — Jesus, environmentalism, Occupy movement, veganism—passion and knowledge alone will not make you effective.

So, how can you avoid becoming the Bourbon Street Jesus guy?

Here is a quick guide to help you convert your passion into results.

Five hurdles to overcome

Life would be a lot easier if we can walk up to somebody and change their minds in a few minutes by showing them some facts, charts, studies and quotes. Alas, people are not that logical. In fact, people can be quite unpredictable. Here are at least five challenges you are going to face as an advocate:

– Default Theory: In the Netherlands, less than 30 percent of the people sign up for organ donation, while in neighboring countries like France and Belgium, that number is almost 100 percent. To add to the chagrin of the Dutch, this low number was achieved after huge campaign efforts by the government. How much do the French and the Belgians spend? Nothing!

It turns out that the Netherlands is an “opt-in” country where you have to fill out a form or check a box in a form in order to become an organ donor. In France, it’s the opposite—you have to fill out something if you don’t want to become an organ donor.

If you ask people, they will tell you all the reasons why donating organs is a good, or even a moral act. But ask them to spend extra two seconds putting an ‘X’ in a box, and you just lost them.

So, this is the first major obstacle faced by advocates of any cause—people take the path of least resistance. People go for the default option.

Does it mean we have to throw in the towel? Of course not.  When people are excited about something, they will go a great distance to get what they want.

 – Herd Mentality: Whether it’s a grown man buying a home in a housing bubble, or his daughter spending all her allowance on Justin Bieber paraphernalia, they are both victims of herd mentality. Following the herd has good evolutionary reasons—there is strength in numbers, and there are benefits for both the individual and the herd.

Thus, if you are trying to convince a person to switch to a vegan diet when all his friends and family love bacon and sausage for breakfast, understand that it’s very likely not going to happen overnight.

– Cognitive Dissonance: The first huge cognitive dissonance many of us had was probably when we first heard that there is no Santa Claus. The clashes between beliefs, or between beliefs and behaviors, lead to cognitive dissonance. And it is not very pretty. So, normally, we just tweak a few concepts, erase a few memories, learn some new facts, and tell ourselves that everything is hunky-dory.

This is why Conservatives listen to Rush Limbaugh every day while liberals watch Rachel Maddow every evening. It’s soothing and comforting to know we are right. Drinking our own Kool-Aid feels refreshing every single time.

– Inertia against Big Changes: If I give you fifty solid reasons why you should get a Master’s degree in Chinese, and further, asked you to sign up for the classes right now, how successful would I be? But if you could get better service in Chinatown restaurants by learning five new words, will you make an effort?

 – A.D.D. and Fun Culture: We live in a very fast-paced world filled with thousands of things battling for people’s attention. If you are trying to convince a friend to watch a documentary about fracking, don’t take it personally if he watches American Idol instead. Also, your messages might be downers—eat organic, recycle, turn the lights off, don’t buy at Walmart etc. You are competing with the corporate messages of instant gratification and endless fun.

Seven types of audience

As Sun Tzu said, “Know thy enemy.” Although it’s impossible to perfectly place people in nice little categories, here are some personalities that you may often come across.

– One liners: These are the people who are masters of simplification. Listen to them for a while, and you will see they have quick, short answers for everything. They can also be convinced with one liners. For example, “If we can drill for oil, five miles below the ocean, we can figure out a way to make efficient solar panels.” If that works, no need for further explanation.

 – Detailed: Obviously, he is the opposite of the one liner. Everything needs to be analyzed from all angles. Be prepared to support your statement with reliable sources. Tough customer, but you will also learn during the process.

 – Cool and Calm: She is the person who will reject any theory that is delivered with passion. Arguments need to be appear objective and non-ideological. “During the 1950s, when American economy was booming, our top income tax rates were about 90%. So, I am not sure if raising the tax on the top 1% will be so bad.”

 – Passionate: This person loves passionate delivery. Passion equals truth. “What we have here is an animal holocaust. I mean, if you did to dogs what the animal industry is doing to cows, chickens and pigs, you will get a f###ing lifetime in prison.”

 – I care: She is the empathetic person. “It’s ironically sad that the people who are most likely to be in food stamps are also the ones who work in the food industry, with 86% making poverty wages.”

What’s in it for me? Don’t know what happened in his childhood, but you are not going to reach him by talking about the destruction of Brazilian rainforests or child labor in Bangladesh. “Did you know that the fish in California have become radioactive after the Fukushima nuclear explosion?”

Give me examples: Nothing convinces him or her faster than an example. “When Kellogg sells non-GMO cereals in Europe, and when Kraft sells macaroni and cheese without artificial dyes in many other countries, why don’t we deserve the same healthy food?”

Now, close your eyes, and try to recollect the seven points mentioned above. No cheating! The point is that it is very easy to overwhelm people with lots of information. With that in mind, here are some strategies for getting more adherents to your principles.

Three Strategies for Success

– K.I.S.S: Keep it simple, stupid. Start with a big general statement, and look at the person’s response. If needed, go into one or two pertinent, strong points. Using quotable lines from famous people often works well. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year old, you don’t understand it well.” Sometimes, the simplest thing is to listen. The more you listen, the more you understand them, and the easier it is to figure out what will work for them.

 – Relevant and Relatable: People react better if they can identify with something or someone. That’s why the Boston marathon bombing gets people’s attention much more than the fertilizer factory explosion in Texas. How many people have ever been near a fertilizer factory? If you can figure out a way to explain how a war with Iran will be bad for the American economy, you have won a convert.

Also, people respond to a single identifiable victim more than a mind boggling number of nameless, faceless victims. A story of a single farmer in Iowa who went bankrupt because of Monsanto, followed by (if needed) a quick summary of the overall problem, can be very effective.

 – Family and Friends: Think of this as the “activist boot camp.” Trying to convince your friends and family can be very challenging because they see you through a different prism. However, this also gives a much better chance to try all your different strategies on a single person, with lots of opportunities to fine-tune your skills. When you do convert a friend or a family member, you have a powerful ally with whom you can work well.

Now, go work on that bacon-eating, veggie-hating, SUV-driving, tax cuts-loving friend!

Chris Kanthan

Chris Kanthan

Chris Kanthan has degrees in Physics and Engineering with a minor in Economics. And, just for fun, a diploma in Paralegal. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, has traveled to more than 30 countries, and deeply cares about politics, finance and food. He has also written an e-book titled "Deconstructing Monsanto" that is available on iTunes, and He can be reached at

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  • KPV

    Your point about people responding favorably to a story about an individual rather than a large number of nameless victims is a good one and backed up here:

    • Chris K

      This is great. Thank you.