We have a new website! Check out the latest version of our toolkit at beautifultrouble.org/toolbox

” … cover(s) a broad terrain, yet manages to go into a lot of detail, venturing well beyond sloganeering.”

Carl Rowlands, New Left Project

Play to the audience that isn’t there

Contributed by and

In Sum

In a hyper-mediated world, often the audience you care about is not the one in the room with you, but the one you’ll reach through mass and social media. Design your action with them in mind.

When you’re pulling off a prank or staging some kind of media spectacle, it’s important to keep in mind that those you’re directly confronting are often not your main audience. When Occupy Wall Street activists swarm Manhattan’s financial district or Bhopal activists camp out on the lawn of the CEO of Union Carbide, there’s no reason to think that the immediate audience will change their minds based on what they’re observing. Rather, the idea is to use the immediate audience as unwitting actors in a theater piece that is being performed for a secondary audience. That secondary audience is comprised of filmgoers or YouTube viewers or TV watchers or press-release readers — and they’re the ones you care most about. Design your intervention with them in mind.

If reporters are going to be present, consider how things will look through their eyes. Regardless, however, make sure to document your own action see PRINCIPLE: Do the media’s work for them. Choreograph the action so you create and capture the moments you need to tell the story you want to tell. When Agit-Pop pulled off their Public Option Annie guerrilla musical see CASE, they snuck more videographers into the conference than singers.

Obviously, the secondary audience is not always your focus. At a rally, say, the key audience might actually be the participants themselves. With most strikes or sit-ins, the key audience is the actual target — a CEO or public official — and your aim is to disrupt business as usual and exact a cost that will pressure your target to accede to your demands.

But even with some of these more disruptive actions, the key audience is not in the room. When Tim DeChristopher disrupted a Utah oil and gas auction in 2008 see CASE: Bidder 70, he was not tempted to address the other bidders directly. His action was for a much larger audience — as well as for the land itself that he helped to save.

Sometimes activists think they’re out to change the minds of the bankers, CEOs, or others they’re ostensibly targeting. It’s one thing to pretend you’re out to change their minds — in order to stage a theatrically effective action, that is often necessary — but it’s another thing to believe it yourself. The idea that you can change evildoers’ minds by gathering en masse outside their stronghold is not exactly supported by the historical record. Instead, think of your target and your immediate audience as unwitting actors in the theater piece you’re concocting for another audience they’re not even aware of.

HOW THE OPPOSITE IS EQUALLY TRUE: Sometimes this principle is absolutely wrong. Sometimes the media and the public will see right through an action that is too heavy-handedly crafted for TV. Sometimes the best way to connect with the indirect audience is just to be your unvarnished, authentic self, warts and all see CASE: Occupy Wall Street.

Andy Bichlbaum (AKA Jacques Servin) got his start as an activist when, as a computer programmer, he inserted a swarm of kissing boys in a shoot-'em-up video game just before it shipped to store shelves, and found himself fired, famous, and hugely amused. Now, Andy helps run the Yes Lab for Creative Activism as part of his job as professor of subversion at New York University. Bichlbaum once flew down the Nile in a two-seater airplane, bringing a live goat to a remote Sudanese village as a hostess gift for a homecoming party. (The party was fun and the goat was insanely delicious.)

A long-time veteran of creative campaigns for social change, Andrew led the decade-long satirical media campaign “Billionaires for Bush” and co-founded the Other 98%. He's the author of a couple books: Daily Afflictions, Life’s Little Deconstruction Book, and the forthcoming I Want a Better Catastrophe: Hope, Hopelessness and Climate Reality. Unable to come up with with his own lifelong ambition, he’s been cribbing from Milan Kundera: “to unite the utmost seriousness of question with the utmost lightness of form.” You can find him at andrewboyd.com.

Hey there! Did you know that you can jump into our experimental visualization interface right from this point? Give it a try and send us your feedback!