A Consumer’s Guide to Street Protests

Advertisements and product placements are marketing promotion tools used to shape consumer attitudes about products and services.  The “sponsor” hopes the newly shaped attitude will lead to a purchase.  Most participants in large street protest regard their presence as testimony to their shared views on an important cause that society should reconsider.  That sentiment is usually genuine with anger mixed in.  Protest organizers see strength of the protester sentiment as one factor leading to success.   Intense media coverage is another sign, and affirmation of the cause by leading politicians is the sought for “purchase.”  In effect, street protest is a promotional effort employing heavy handed product placement.  Unlike with commercial products, the “sponsor” often is masked from the public.   

The late September 2012 protests in Madrid were an example of contrivance.  The protesters asked Spain’s Prime Minister Rajoy for $6.5 billion in aid for Catalonia and a November 25th date for an election where independence for Catalonia is on the ballot.  The Madrid protest was staged after a Barcelona rally two weeks earlier.  Unlike Madrid, Barcelona is actually in Catalonia. 

The Madrid protest is no spontaneous gathering to voice heartfelt longings for justice.  Substantial funds and logistics were needed to shuttle Catalonians to Madrid, and the protesters’ “ask” of Prime Minister Rajoy, is the micromanaged amount and timing their Catalonian leader announced.  The protest was staged to harvest TV coverage.  TV coverage is more compelling to all involved than a quicker and more efficient letter or press release.  The organizers probably needed to push protesters hard to sustain their emotions for the camera.

In Tehran in early October 2012, a small street march was stamped out by riot police.  The marchers were protesting dire economic conditions, and high inflation at food and clothing markets.  The protest was probably spontaneous and by locals.  Ahmadinejad predictably blamed western troublemakers and his domestic political rivals for the protest.   

Three years ago, Tehran faced several days of protests over election fraud that shortchanged secular candidates.  Those protests were quashed by brutal police action.  Media coverage of the protests was tried via internet and satellite phones, but the feeds were sporadic, and of poor visual and audio quality.  The coverage did not result in meaningful support from western politicians.

There are other protests worth analysis. The cookie-cutter protests at World Bank meetings are reliably a spectacle.  They feature “big head” protester costumes and imported, black-clad anarchists who light fires and smash the largest windows they can find.  World Bank street-theater is highly effective bait for TV cameras, and has no doubt earned a Nobel Prize to be awarded soon.

The 2011 Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests had some brilliant and disastrous features.  As an intentional response to 2010 Tea Party rallies, OWS based itself in resentments toward banks and high earners in the financial sector.  After the first week, “marchers” just sat or squatted in dirty-looking canvass lean-tos and “99%” became a late-night punch line.  Many OWS street-level participants were unable to say what they were protesting and in interviews most rambled about “giving support” and being in the “99 percent.”  This was a lazy version of 60’s flower-children “sticking it to the man.”

OWS was franchised into some major and small towns.  In Gainesville Florida, OWS protesters gravitated to a downtown park named Bo Diddley Square, so of course the movement became “Occupy Diddley,” suggestive of the movements relevance.   As street theater OWS was too sedentary and TV coverage dwindled quickly.  An attempt to resurrect OWS in 2012 petered out.

In the 80s and 90s in Washington DC, it was common to launch a protest with help from a “rent a riot” consultant.  For fee, they would deliver protesters with appropriate home-made looking signage and no-collar clothing to appear at a designated location – pre-announced to TV stations.  It was a cheap and fast way to get TV coverage that Congress would see for an issue that would otherwise not merit TV time.

Participants in street protests can be righteous and genuinely believe in the speeches and talking points being distributed.  What deserves our critical thinking are the organizers’ real agenda, the street-theater shenanigans used to attract TV cameras, and ultimately the sponsor’s agenda – are the politicians who might affirm the cause already “in on it?”

Alan Daley is a retired businessman living in Florida and following public policy from a consumer’s perspective

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