Let’s face it – sometimes getting a message out to the public can feel like shooting anchovies in a barrel of mud. The target seems invisible, success seems immeasurable, and no one seems to understand the problem well enough to offer any real advice. While it’s true that each problem is unique, others have been stuck before, and perhaps these times present a fine opportunity to draw a lesson from history.
Take the story of the late Stetson Kennedy, for example (circulated heavily in the press last year and in the 2005 book Freakonomics by David Levitt). Kennedy was an author, folklorist, and human rights activist who was disturbed by the racism and bigotry that plagued America during the 30’s and 40’s. Especially troubling to him was the relatively recent resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which by that time had evolved into a hierarchical, due collecting, lobbying organization with substantial political power. He and other journalists fought them in Georgia by writing in popular journals and newspapers, but they saw little success in diminishing the Klan’s power. Stetson finally noticed a fundamental problem. “I was soon struck [that] almost all the things written on the subject were editorials, not exposes. The writers were against the Klan, all right, but they had precious few inside facts about it.” At that realization, he decided to start again from the first step – reliable research. He and another colleague decided to join the Ku Klux Klan.
Kennedy and his associate rose in the ranks and soon had more inside information about the Klan than had ever been compiled, including the details about its hierarchy, funding, rituals, passwords, and other secrets. Though he wrote to the governor outlining the legal evidence to deliver some crippling blows to the local organization, Kennedy soon realized that the effects of external pressure would only be temporary locally and insignificant nationally. Change had to come from within the organization, but how? Frustrated, Kennedy, according to his own account, saw some children playing and was suddenly hit with a stroke of inspiration. If the secrets of the Klan were publically trivialized, the Klan members themselves would be embarrassed to continue their work. Kennedy called the writers of the radio show, The Adventures of Superman, who wrote a 17 part series in which Superman exposes and crushes the KKK with the help of some local town boys. In 1947, as secret aspects of the Klan’s operations became known to children all over the country and incorporated into their games, attendance at KKK meetings plummeted. Though critics have rightfully scrutinized some of Kennedy’s sources and conclusions in later years, historians still acknowledge the impact of his work today.
While joining the KKK isn’t the answer to most marketing problems, the story is certainly a good reminder to get back to the basics. As in Kennedy’s case, it’s easy to feel stuck at a dead end until some critical questions are reckoned with: How well do I really know my target? What facts am I missing that will give me an edge? How can I collect them accurately? After closing the information gap, the next vital question arises – what is my message, and what is the best medium for it? Sometimes a delineation on the government’s desk will do the trick, but other times, you may realize that Superman and a bunch of kids can strike at the heart of the problem much more effectively. Though a roadblock may seem as insurmountable as the politically entrenched KKK, history and experience say that a fresh, critical look at the foundations can be the beginning of turning night into day.