Clicks Or Commitment

A collaboration among Participant Media, the Gates Foundation and the University of Southern California to investigate the kinds of social media activism that create real commitment and behavior change promises new insights for corporations dealing with activist-driven issues. Initial reports in The New York Times (Cieply, 2014) suggest that there are potential markers for activist campaigns that produce real consumer boycotts, shareholder dissidence and disinvestment campaigns, as opposed to merely views, likes and downloads.

If this is true, non-profit organizations dedicated to change will have valuable insights into what kinds of campaigns are actually effective and which are dramatic and appealing but not ultimately successful. By definition, the converse must also be true. Corporations facing activist campaigns will have new tools to determine the likelihood of any given campaign being successful or at least impactful by analyzing the communications channels and media content deployed by the activists within the same framework. Furthermore, to the extent that companies are creating their own social programs, it should be possible for them to learn from the same features of activist, dare we call it propaganda, that are most effective in motivating consumers to engage with them on initiatives of mutual interest.


There is a natural tendency to perceive social activism as something peculiar to our time, and indeed, the clipboard-carrying students and teenagers on the streets of cities asking us to sign petitions to protect whales and forests, support gay rights and promote solidarity with people suffering around the world are a persistent feature of modern society. However, even if we assign the 1950s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches in Europe or the Civil Rights Movement in the USA to a different category, there is ample evidence that each generation reinvents social activism to meet the needs and the communications channels of its time. The Temperance movement of the late nineteenth century led by the redoubtable Carrie Nation, Margaret Sanger’s struggle to make contraception and information about birth control accessible to women, to take two examples, offer intriguing parallels to today’s social activism.

In each case, these activists developed unique and compelling strategies. They both experimented with different kinds of confrontations and public events to stir up support. Civil disobedience played a significant role in both Carrie Nation’s and Margaret Sanger’s strategy. Nation was jailed on numerous occasions, and Sanger was indicted after the publication of Family Limitation, jumped bail and fled to Canada. Carrie Nation made her creative breakthrough when she first started carrying a small hatchet to damage saloons (McQueen, 2001).

This was an idea first suggested by her husband as a joke but quickly became her signature and helped spread her fame across the USA as she smashed up barrooms across the country accompanied by a group of hymn singing female supporters. She was eventually able to help pay her legal fees and fines. Through the sale of souvenir hatchets and hatchet pins in pewter, even in gold plate and inlaid with mother of pearl became fashionable items for supporters of the temperance cause. The narrative of the courageous woman willing to face jail time, the opportunity for other women to join her with relatively little personal risk and the ability to visibly identify with the cause by wearing a hatchet pin for an even larger group are all features of a successful social movement that we would recognize today.

“Clicks Or Commitment: activism in the age of social media ” appeared in The Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 35 Issue: 5, pp.55 – 58, and is reprinted with permission from Emerald Publishing Group Ltd.

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