What Public Interest Groups Can Learn from the People Who Make us Watch
“What I’d like to know,” said Bill Roberts, executive director of The Beldon Fund, “is how those guys at Miramax do it.” I had called Bill to talk about public interest advertising (and a project I was developing to help improve it), but he wanted to talk about the movies. “Here’s a studio,” Bill observed, “that regularly takes complicated stories with a potentially short shelf life and somehow manages to find them huge audiences.” He wondered aloud if some of Miramax’s marketing techniques could be applied by public interest advocates who must also build sizable audiences for complex issues in narrow windows of time.
Bill’s speculation inspired two conversations in December. First, I called Mark Gill, president of Miramax LA. Gill has directed marketing campaigns for “Shakespeare in Love,” “The English Patient,” “Pulp Fiction” and many other box-office successes. I also interviewed Todd Gold, LA bureau chief for Us Weekly, who has written celebrity profiles of the rich and famous from Bill Gates to Madonna. Before working at Us, Gold spent a year producing, “The Thin Green Line,” an environmental newsmagazine for the Outdoor Life Network. He knew from firsthand experience what it felt like to tell stories with a huge megaphone as well as two paper cups connected with string.
I asked Gill and Gold, “What have you learned that can help people who are trying to build public interest in issues such as the environment, health care, education reform, violence prevention, and the like?” Their answer: plenty.
1. Keep it simple.
“Let’s assume you have a good idea and you want to break through the clutter,” said Gill. “The trick is to appeal to people’s simpler, more emotional side.” He holds up “Shakespeare in Love” as a prime example. “That could easily have been sold as ‘important,’ ‘culturally valuable,’ ‘the kind of movie Hollywood needs to do more of,'” he intoned facetiously. “Nobody’s going if you do that. We sold the sizzle: this isn’t your father’s Shakespeare. It’s a great deal more fun and entertaining.” And it worked. Gill is also a believer that less is more when dealing with reporters. “You have to radically oversimplify,” he explained, “because if you don’t, the media will do it for you and invariably they will get it wrong.”
2. Tell personal stories, don’t debate issues.
I’ll turn the TV off if the story is just about an issue,” Gold confessed. “But if the story is about a person – not unlike myself – making sacrifices to fight a battle with a good side and a bad side, then [you’ve got] a compelling story with a human center that would be hard to turn off.” Gill echoed this sentiment, saying, “You want to have someone to root for. Where is the conflict?” he asked. “Where is the rooting interest? You don’t generate interest by saying, ‘This is right.’ You dramatize the personal story.”
3. Accent when possible: change, undue misfortune, the new angle.
In the course of our conversation, Gill identified three elements which have pulled strongly for Miramax movies: “People want to hear about a change – a lot. They associate it with hope. Undeserved misfortune is a tremendous generator of sympathy,” he added. “But originality is everything. The media is the beast that always wants something new, and the public is far more interested in something they haven’t heard 30 times before.” If you’re dealing with a familiar issue (such as air pollution), Gill suggests, it’s imperative that you find a new angle if you want reporters to respond.
4. Make heroes out of ordinary people.
“You need to make heroes out of the people on the front lines,” said Gold adamantly. “The public is much more likely to fall in love with the Norma Rae type housewife who is fighting to save animals or fighting pollution on the playground than a Harvard educated scientist who will lecture them on global warming.” He offers Erin Brockovich as the most current exemplar. “Once you present those stories, they’ll end up on the news, in People, on MTV, and then you’ll start to change the consciousness.”
5. Entertain, educate, activate.
Gold described a formula that he learned at People: “You had to meet the person first, you had to get involved in their life, and then you would learn about the issue.” Even in the sober world of public interest advocacy, Gold insists, you must engage and entertain the audience before moving on to the business at hand. Once you have their attention, Gold contends, you can begin to educate them about your issue – and once people understand what’s at stake, you have a better chance at convincing them to act. “It’s hard to personalize an issue like the destruction of coral reefs, but there are people out there who are fighting that battle. People whose lives are affected by the disappearance of coral reefs. Tell their stories and then bring in an expert to explain how an unhealthy ocean affects the life of the planet,” Gold suggests. “But the key ingredient is showing the ordinary people.”
What is Abstinence?
Before spending dollar one on your next public education campaign, make sure your audience knows exactly what you’re talking about. Several state-level campaigns promoting abstinence from sex comprise a dramatic case in point. According to recent studies, literally tens of millions of dollars may have been wasted by these campaigns – all thanks to the hazy definition of a single word.
Webster’s College Dictionary defines abstinence as “forbearance from indulgence of an appetite,” or as Bob Dole liked to say, “Just don’t do it.” According to a New York Times article entitled, “Sex Survey Shows Practices of Boys” (12.18.00), however, there is no consensus among teenage or even college-age males as to what abstinence really means. Substantial numbers of those surveyed believed they could participate in oral sex or anal sex and still be considered abstinent. Even health educators disagree on the definition. “A survey last year found that nearly a third believed that oral sex was abstinent behavior,” the Times reported. (My unofficial survey of recent ex-Presidents confirms further confusion on this point.)
The moral of this story of muddled morals is clear: even when you’re certain your message contains language that everyone understands, do a little homework. Investing in a focus group or two now could save you big bucks down the road.