Ordinary people can exert extraordinary influence. I joined a Facebook campaign on Saturday, to oppose billboard advertising promoting marital infidelity. On Monday I blogged about it and updated this on Tuesday, outlining the campaign steps I had taken. I am just one of many campaigners.
The campaign leaders emailed their followers this afternoon to confirm their campaign was successful. They had seen their Facebook group swell to over 3,500 members in just four days. But more importantly, many of us took action and it yielded results.
Did we know we would be successful? No. Was it risky to campaign in this way? Yes. We faced criticism from several different angles.
Some critics felt free speech was paramount. Yes it’s important, but it does not trump all else. In any case, if advertisers are entitled to free speech, so are campaigners.
I am not generally against free speech. I supported the BBC’s decision to host the BNP’s Nick Griffin on Question Time. In the end I felt an opportunity was missed to allow him to develop his ideas and face serious challenge, but I stand by my support for the decision. However, this campaign was different. The adverts appeared to breach the ASA code (although it didn’t initially accept this). Many of the BNP’s policies and utterances are offensive, but their political mandate was empirically recognised in a recent election.
Some critics argued it was a waste of time campaigning against something which was legal. If it wasn’t legal we’d just call the police! Marital infidelity is not a breach of criminal law, but it is a breach of civil law. It is a breach of contract between those who choose to forsake all others for as long as they both shall live. Or at least for as long as they remain married! The advert was not illegal, but we certainly believed it fell foul of advertising standards.
Some critics made the point that the website was not forcing individuals to break their marriage vows. They suggested visitors to the website were prepared to be unfaithful already and that advertising could not be blamed for the breakdown of their marriages. Yes, there is a truth within this, but it’s too simplistic to rest the argument there. Advertising works. It has a material effect on people’s decisions, which is why successful companies devote substantial resources to it. It’s also true that the website makes it easier for individuals to stray.
Marriage takes work. It ought to. Society doesn’t need organisations seeking to profit out of threatening the institution still further. Other organisations such as Relationship Central set a much better example.
If you tolerate this, then your children will be next.
(Manic Street Preachers, 1998)
Finally (among the main arguments I saw) some critics felt we were giving the oxygen of publicity to the website in question. See the Streisand effect for more on this phenomenon. It is true the campaign probably had this effect, but I believe it was better to take action than to walk on by. The website has received publicity, but challenging the advertising was important. The risk was that we may have failed while granting free publicity to our opponent’s cause. But we succeeded and the risk paid off. Such campaigns will not always succeed, but they are still worth fighting. We drew a fresh line in the sand for the ASA to consider before approving future advertising.
All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
(War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, 1869; or Edmund Burke)
In our campaign many good men and women did something. And they did a good thing. One of the organisers, Jon Yates, explained early on that we needed to be more than a Facebook group to get results. Daily actions were suggested.
I took a number of simple steps to help. I was amazed at the reach of one of my efforts. When I discovered one of the billboards was in my own constituency, I wrote to my MP, Jim Fitzpatrick. I also copied in my local councillors and one of them, Ahmed Hussain (Conservative), was tenacious in his response.
Cllr Ahmed immediately contacted his party colleagues and key officers in Tower Hamlets. He also raised the matter with City Hall and within a few hours the Deputy Mayor, Richard Barnes, was involved. Tim Archer, the local Conservative PPC, dipped his oar in, with a letter to the Chief Executive of the ASA asking why the complaints weren’t being investigated. The MP and his Labour colleagues on the council also took an interest. All this from one email.
Never underestimate what’s possible, especially in an election year! I am not the reason this campaign was successful, but I know I played my part. I was one of many.
Now there is a new campaign. This one is – in effect – to encourage White Label Dating (a B2B internet company) to break its link with the website in question. It will be tough but…
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.