From the TUC

Grassroots versus Advertising

17 May 2012, By Guest

Grassroots logoGenerally the forces that disagree with us have a wealth of monetary resources at their feet.  They can pour money into TV ads, into billboards and in reaching the powerful to support their aims and messages. What do we have to compare to change the way people think on our issues?

This question resurfaced while I was watching this article on the Rachel Maddow show.  In describing the Republican attack on the rights to abused women who have come to the US via marriage (and whose visas depended on this relationship), she outlines the relationship between the owners of sites that advertise mail order brides (who this law helps) and the groups who are lobbying to repeal the law. Half way through the piece, I began to consider again about the impact that money has on building support for campaigns coupled with a focus on slogans, messages and polling.

A while back I read David Plouffe’s Audacity to Win which described how their planned and ran the Obama election campaign.  With my organiser’s hat on, I found it a really interesting and thought provoking book.  In his description of how they built a grassroots membership and activism and the importance of this to winning the election, I was struck at first by how this was very similar to an organising campaign rather than any elections I had witnessed.

What impact did this emphasis on people have on the campaign?  Profound in terms of leadership, and authenticity.  If there was a negative ad about Obama, the network of activists would refute it to their families, friends and colleagues.  While looking after the front lawn, they would talk to their neighbours about why they supported him and what he stood for that was in their interest.  What had the most impact on that person’s viewpoint and was able to effectively bring someone on board?  Was it the ad or the person they trusted and respected?  Often we overlook the power of human interactions and subtle leadership.  The person in the community, workplace or family who everyone looks to for guidance or trusts in analysis.  Get that person on board and despite the prevailing winds, a campaign will be in a good position.

I advise campaigners and organisers to look at structuring plans in five basic areas:

  • Goal: what are you trying to achieve (be specific!)
  • Organisational considerations: all of your resources plus what you know you’ll probably need.
  • Constituents:  Allies and opponents and who you want to campaign with/for.
  • Target: Who is the person that will make the decision you will get you what you want.
  • Tactics: Actions that will build up your organisation, and put pressure on your target.

I’m highlighting this because the order of the planning underlines where a campaign should put its emphasis.  Who is on your side and will be your advocates should come a long time before working out your slogan or title.  Groups as mentioned on the Maddow show have endless pots of money to spend on snazzy logos, slogans and ads.  When we try to compete on their terms we lose and overlook the most powerful resource that those of us on the progressive spectrum have – potential of people power.

There is a reason why astroturfing is so big in the US, it’s because those campaign groups have no organisation or people power and have to make it up.  We don’t.  Concentrate on how your campaign will build up your base rather than snazzy logos and slogans because the word of a trusted person is worth more than an ad.


Grassroots is being held at the TUC, Congress House, Great Russell St, London on 26 May.  To register go to 

One Response to Grassroots versus Advertising

  1. Learning from Grassroots | STRONGER UNIONS
    Jun 6th 2012, 12:02 pm

    […] here about the role of grassroots organising in mounting successful campaigns and in prioritising building activism within a campaign in the run up to our Grassroots conference at the end of May.  As we often say on this site, there […]