Defund the Police: Lessons for marketing, politics, and life
The Defund the Police movement advocates for many changes in the US Justice System. While the degree to which each one of its policy proposals needs to be implemented can be debated, there is ample evidence supporting the central claim that the way law enforcement in the US is funded contributes to the militarization of its police forces, and to an over-emphasis on policing and incarceration in the justice system. All this to the detriment of prevention and social services, with the institutionalization of social and racial injustices that come along with them.
Given the above, Defund the Police’s arguments for the reallocation of money from policing and incarceration to prevention and social services are worth taking seriously, but that is not the scope of this article.
Rather, we will look at the effectiveness of Defund the Police as a slogan from the perspective of how it has helped the movement reach its objectives, using a simple framework borrowed from Marketing: Awareness, engagement, and action.
Defund the Police’s objectives
Most movements will have, in some combination and with different emphasis, the objectives of driving awareness, engage by evoking an emotional response, which will then give an impetus to a call to action for the audience.
Let us take a look at the effectiveness of Defund the Police as the slogan for the movement.
The first step for a movement is to make sure that people know of its existence, and that of the problems that it is trying to solve. There is not much room for debate, defund the Police has been very successful at driving near universal awareness of the issue it espouses. Top marks here.
Here the slogan’s impact is more mixed. Yes, it engages by triggering a strong emotional response in the audience. The complication is, it triggers two very different responses.
For those who are more susceptible to the movement’s message, the response is something akin to a righteous rage in response to the evidence of injustice and disproportional use of force in policing. This is an understandable and justifiable emotional response, one might add.
On the other had, for those prone to reject the movement’s message, it will raise a different emotion. Fear of a potential breakdown of social order with a weakening of the guardrails of strong policing. Not to mention that given that policing is a difficult and valuable job for society, the slogan can be perceived as disrespectful to those brave souls who perform it. Also, understandable and justifiable concerns.
The mass marches against police brutality and advocacy for justice reform show us how effective Defund the Police has been at raising awareness, and tapped into the rage against an unjust system. The problem is, it has also tapped into an equally rich reactionary vein that gives a significant segment of the population the impetus to oppose whatever changes the moment advocates for, driven by an equally strong emotional charge.
Polarization can, and is, resulting in political gridlock because the changes that the movement wants to bring about are obstructed by the very same reactionary emotions awoken by the slogan.
This unintended call to action to forces opposing the movement’s objectives is a consequence of such a polarizing slogan. It performs well at driving awareness, but opposing, and equally passionate reactions to it make it less effective in subsequent stages of the marketing funnel.
How this is different from traditional marketing
Polarization can be great marketing.
Some businesses can be very successful by serving only a small segment of the population. Consider this Audi commercial that came out at a time when most luxury car brands were cluttering the media touting their cars’ self-parking capabilities. Audi broke through the clutter by calling itself the luxury car for people who can park by themselves. Yes, it made fun of people who find it difficult to parallel-park, but Audi did not need to have that segment onboard to be successful and profitable.
Luxury brands understand this very well. So, they are good at creating an air of exclusivity. Excluding people from your target audience can create a perceived value for those who are in. People pay some brands a premium for that exclusivity.
But government and politics are different from business. Once you have brought an issue onto the table, you need to be able to also get it implemented into law. For that to happen, given the representative nature of most democratic systems, you need to bring a majority of the citizenry on your side. And much more than just a simple majority if the rival camp feels strongly about the contrary argument.
This is one of the reasons why activists and business leaders tend to struggle when they attempt to make the switch into politics.
But, is it achieving its goals?
As a slogan, Defund the Police has spread like wildfire, bringing awareness of its cause to the masses. Looking at awareness in isolation, it has been pretty good activism.
However, in its wake, it has also roused other emotions that have created a strong counter-reaction from people who might otherwise be reached with arguments leading with reason and empathy, but now cannot see beyond the strong emotional charge of the strongly worded slogan.
The vast numbers of citizens it has not managed to bring onboard are a lost political opportunity, especially given the soundness of the movement’s arguments for improving societal outcomes by reallocating budget from policing to prevention and from military-grade armaments to social services.
The heightened emotional charge of the debate risks a confrontation that will give off much heat, but very little light, with the old and frustrating net effect of gridlocked inaction. Given the obvious need for justice reform, it would be a tragedy that in the movement’s early success in achieving awareness are also the seeds of its later failure to drive significant action and change.
Marketing, politics, life
The way most people are wired, when challenged with logical arguments designed to show us the error of our ways, we tend to entrench and radicalize in our positions. Generally, an appeal to our empathy and common humanity has a much higher chance at converting people to your point of view.
In other words, would you rather win the argument, or would you rather reach your goals?
Story originally published in Medium.