May 2013

Campaigning for cultural transformation

A new experiment from Berlin

Last year our friends from Impuls (Agency for Applied Utopias) in Berlin started an action learning process with young campaigners (Kampagnenwerkstatt in German) to collaboratively design and put into practice a campaign that would experiment with new ways of supporting the type of changes needed for the Great Transition.

What we know from the Smart CSOs dialogue is that current CSO campaigns are mostly focusing on concrete and often very technical policy wins and are too often driven by short-term tactical considerations rather than by a strategy of long-term systemic change. In his recent book, What Money Can’t Buy, Harvard’s political philosopher Michael Sandel laments the vacancy in public discourse about the big moral questions that people really care about. As there are no signs from governments or political parties to fill this vacancy, it seems that civil society has a real opportunity to fill this gap and design campaigns that kick-start societal conversations and thereby play a role in a much needed cultural transformation. This is exactly what the Impuls campaign learning process arrived at.

Vision and Rationale of the Campaign

The young campaigners decided on a long-term vision where “our societal structures enable rather than prevent sustainable and self-determined life styles that are based on sufficiency rather than consumerism.” As one of the concrete steps and experiments that could help to achieve such a vision, the Kampagnenwerkstatt therefore concluded that the campaign would attempt to kick-start a critical discourse among the German public about how the omnipresent advertising is manipulating consumer behaviour and preventing us from living less consumerist life styles (sufficiency).

In order to find out more about the campaign that was officially launched at the end of April (2013), we talked to Melanie Hernandez who is one their leading campaigners. Melanie tells us that the underlying ideas of the campaign — now called the Office for the Abolishment of Commercial Ads and for the Good Life (literal translation) — developed as a result of the Kampagnenwerkstatt while discussing the concept of a good life and sufficiency life styles. The participants concluded that consumption incentives created through advertising and planned obsolescence prevent sufficiency in our society. Commercial ads often create artificial needs or suggest that the advertised goods will contribute to our emotional wellbeing, thus subconsciously manipulating us into consuming more and more. Ads hence stand in clear conflict with goals like sufficiency and sustainability. Advertising also contradicts with our social values, as it restricts the democratic right of self-determination in the public space and promotes stereotype, racist and sexist pictures. Outdoor advertising is considered particularly disturbing because people are permanently exposed to it. Nevertheless, advertisements have become a natural part of the city environment and are not questioned by the majority of residents. This is where the Office for the Abolishment of Commercial Ads and for the Good Life steps in.

Initiating Public Discourse and Moving Political Leverages – Two Interrelated Goals

As Melanie explains, the Office’s campaign is based on two interrelated goals: Initiating a social discourse on advertising and implementing political change by making Berlin’s Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district advertising-free. The intention for a broad public discourse is to question the rationale of advertising, consumerism and economic growth and to make way for alternatives. In doing so, the campaigners wish to reach beyond expert circles already dealing with issues of a post-growth society and aim to make the concept accessible to all social classes. The campaigners have created a website ( and a facebook page where they want to provide a room for discussion about a good life beyond consumerism and economic growth.

With regard to the second goal, the campaigners seek to implement political change at the lowest democratic level – the local district Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. They are currently formulating a resident petition for an advertising-free public space to be filed for at the local district government. Melanie explains: “Just as tobacco and alcohol advertising is already forbidden in our district due to health reasons, the petition aims to prevent the overconsumption of material goods out of social and environmental motives, and demands a reduction or abolition of advertisement in public areas.” The petition involves 1000 signatures from the district’s residents. The campaigners hope that the community support received within Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, a district where approximately sixty percent of its inhabitants have a migration background, will demonstrate to district representatives that the ideas and demands of their campaign are not only coming from a left-wing initiative but are based on values that are existent in different groups and social classes of the citizenry.

Another political leverage used by the Office was to get access to the German national Enquete Commission on ‘Growth, prosperity and quality of life – pathways to a sustainable economy and societal progress in the social market economy’. The cooperation resulted in a discussion paper of the initiative appearing as a particular addendum in the final report of the commission.

According to Melanie, the two goals of initiating public discourse on the relationship between advertisement and consumerism and moving political leverages are supposed to reinforce each other: Filing a petition or using other means of democratic participation requires the wide support and acceptance of the respective constituency - in other words, it needs enough people that have engaged with and can relate to the topic in question. For this to happen, residents need to get informed and mobilized through an ongoing public discourse. On the other hand, action and changes achieved on the political level, such as working with the Enquete Commission, supposedly intensify an already existing discourse or stimulate an even wider dialogue on the issue, possibly beyond the local level. Ultimately, the campaign wishes to enable as many people as possible to get engaged and involved – in the discourse as well as concrete political steps.

High Media Attention with Mixed Responses

Though sparking mixed reactions and sentiments, Melanie and her colleagues were thrilled about the relatively high media attention to the campaign. Several German newspapers have reported on the initiative, triggering virtual discussions that reflect the wide spectrum of responses: There are supporters who share the feeling of disturbance when it comes to outdoor advertising and are enthusiastic about the campaign. There are defenders for whom advertising serves as an information broker for new products, a necessity for economic growth or simply a means to instil a glowing glamour into the city. And there are the unconcerned who commonly state that they remain unaffected by outdoor advertising as it can easily be ignored by them.

Melanie says that the greatest worry of the group is to be labelled as isolated, left-wing weirdoes. The campaigners are hence in the process of discussing strategies on how to get into dialogue with the people that are sceptical of their initiative. Currently, they are drafting Frequently Asked Questions to be added to their web and facebook page. The FAQ are supposed to explain and draw attention to the underlying thoughts and rationales behind the campaign. Melanie stresses that the campaigners’ concern is to not remain in a bubble of people who are already convinced of the issues in question (‘preaching to the converted’), but also reach out to people outside this circle. Making those caught in conventional mental infrastructures, unable to see the bigger picture, aware of how advertising intensifies our consumerist culture with all its negative effects on society and environment and elaborating on the concept of a good life is certainly one of the more difficult challenges of the campaign.

Insofar as the positive responses are concerned, twenty supporters have joined the initial group of seventeen apprentice campaigners and now work voluntarily for the goals of the Office. Concrete methods and processes on measuring and reflecting the campaign’s success are still in discussion. Two success factors that Melanie mentioned ad hoc during the interview were utilizing the broad expertise of people involved for crowd sourcing and recognizing the value of base camp software in helping to coordinate the different working groups.

From a Smart CSOs perspective this is an interesting experiment of innovative campaigning that we will follow closely. As Melanie herself acknowledges, the challenge seems to be to avoid being a campaign mainly perceived as anti advertising but to achieve that it keeps its focus on the need for a reflective discourse about the absurdity of consumerist life styles and its many positive alternatives (The Good Life).