Effective Cultural Strategy: What We Know

Erin Potts
Sep 26, 2017 · 7 min read

Although commonly pointed to as examples of successful cultural strategy, there is a growing body of evidence that shows tactics such as surrogates, benefit concerts, public service announcements are not very effective. Where tactics like this most often fail is in not being targeted or authentic enough to inspire action, and also in lacking efficiency (in terms of how much time and effort they take for what kind of return). What previous projects and research does show is that popular culture — whether film, TV, music, video games, social media, or other media — is an effective agent of social change when employed and deployed strategically.

What we know works.

Cultural strategy changes perceptions on issues.

Illustrating positive yet real (read: not perfect) individuals from marginalized communities interacting / in relationship with individuals from majority communities through art (TV, movie, song, etc) helps change perspectives. The changing perception of gay people and marriage equality in America is a great example of this and can be seen in the change in public opinion on the subject of gay marriage from 1996 (27% agreed that it should be recognized) to 2013 (53%). Below is a timeline that shows some of the relationships between cultural actions and moments and political progress on this issue. Interestingly, GLAAD’s research on what caused this double-digit swing in perceptions showed that the number one reason was knowing someone who was gay. The second was watching TV or films that included gay characters that they got to know and understand in these long-form narratives. (In other words, the characters became like gay friends, a phenomenon called “vicarious relationships.”)

Courtesy: The Culture Group

Further Links:

Developing the capacity of cultural leaders to be allies to our movements.

Cultural leadership looks and acts differently than leadership amongst organizers and political strategists. Revolutions Per Minute has spent the better part of a decade training musicians to be better activists and philanthropists through Artist-Activism Retreats in places like New Orleans, the US-Mexico Border, and Appalachia. Together, the artists that have participated have generated millions of dollars, raised critical awareness for groups working on environment and social justice issues, created dozens of creative collaborations and songs, and changed the way an entire generation of artists incorporate activism and philanthropy into their creative professions.

Further Links:

  • More info on this program and its outcomes can be found here.
  • More case studies on outcomes of building cultural leaders’ capacity can be found here.

Creating cultural products that reinforce identity, community, and meaning…and fund movements.

Research finds that cultural products do more than just create revenue — they also infused with value or meaning that reinforce the identity and community. It also finds that the most successful efforts occur when cultural creatives themselves are designing and driving the products and opportunities. Examples of these campaigns include:

  • Evangelical Christian groups sell over $3 billion a year in identity and community reinforcing products, such as “silver ring things” and “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets. Read more about this here.
  • The Obama Campaign Hope Poster & Merchandise.
  • Micro-donations added to recurring sales like ticketed events, restaurants, etc. (See RPM’s Ticket Add-on Program as an example.)
  • (Product) Red Campaign

For more about all of this, please see Culture Matters: Understanding Cultural Strategy and Measuring Cultural Impact.

What research tells us works.

Music activates the part of the brain that governs optimism…and is good for other reasons.

We know that music inspires us to think differently about the world, to join social change movements we didn’t know about before, and that music can become the energizing soundtrack for our personal activism. Interestingly, the power of music is also being documented in market and academic research:

  • Biologists determined that music activates the part of the brain that governs optimism, making it a powerful antidote to the long and sometimes difficult work of change making.
  • Research found that musicians engaged in activism help their fans feel more personally connected to issues and believing that their participation can make a difference.
  • A recent study found that musicians were reaching new supporters — ones not already touched by other social justice groups.

For more information see:

Levitin, Daniel J., This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Penguin Group, 2006.

“Celebrity Endorsements and their potential to Motivate Young Voters” Mass Communications and Society 11: 420–436, February 2009.

Humor helps shift perspectives.

Psychologists have found that humor helps shift perspectives, gives courage and strength to find new sources of meaning and hope, and unites people during difficult times. For more on the role of comedy in social change, see “In the 21st century, comedy is our greatest tool for progressive change“.

Abstract art makes us look at the world differently.

A neuroscientist has found that “the reason abstract art poses such an enormous challenge to the beholder is that it teaches us to look at art — and, in a sense, at the world — in a new way. Abstract art dares our visual system to interpret an image that is fundamentally different from the kind of images our brain has evolved to reconstruct.”

Actually, research tells us that all pop culture can effect social change.

Extracted from #PopJustice, Volume 3: Pop Culture, Perceptions, and Social Change (A Research Review):

In regards to whether popular culture can be an effective instrument for positive social change, we identified characteristics of pop culture that make it a unique forum for shaping attitudes, such as the repeated representation of identity groups, the ability to trigger emotions and empathy, the use of a narrative format. Research suggests that we experience ‘interactions’ in media similar to how we experience them interpersonally, and several theoretical insights point to the powerful implications of this phenomenon…

We then examined the question of whether popular culture can improve public opinion and behavior toward immigrants and people of color. For every pop cultural medium that we researched, we were able to find studies utilizing interventions to bring about social change, and even very brief or minimal interventions produced significant results. Watching a single episode of a children’s show, or a movie, or a short story, or even a counter-stereotypical celebrity photograph brought about measurable effects that could ultimately lead to social impacts.

To be sure, the changes brought about by the interventions in the literature were not always behavioral — typically they were attitudinal or emotional — and seldom did researchers analyze whether they would be long lasting. Nor did the interventions always succeed as anticipated; an intervention might change subjects’ symbolic beliefs about racism but fall short of increasing support affirmative action policies, for example. Even so, the message from the literature is clear and encouraging: we found no evidence that any particular pop cultural medium is incapable of being employed for positive social change. As such, we believe that pop culture may be a promising avenue by which to tackle prejudices against outgroups — specifically, immigrants and people of color.

For more about how popular culture functions as an agent of change, see #PopJustice: Social Justice and the Promise of Pop Culture Strategies.

What we think will work.

There are also things that we suspect will work, but need large-scale pilots and research to confirm it.

Cultural consumption / audience segmentation & audience-matching.

Audience-matching is a strategy in which we seek to work with the artists and creative projects whose audience is those we wish to engage. If Evangelical Christians are the most moveable on climate, we should be working with Christian rock bands and others that appeal to this demographic. If baby boomers are the biggest obstacles to marriage equality and other LGBTQ rights, then artists that were popular in that era are key to that work. Most artists have a sense of their audiences, but commercial artists and projects have actual data. Adding this cultural and audience affiliation information to the voter files will help us track and use these strategies and tactics better.

Cultural advance campaigns.

These types of campaigns would focus on engaging like-minded artists and creatives who already create for the audiences we seek to engage. Using the research on what we know works, these professionals would inject expanded narrative themes intended to shift their audience’s perceptions into their existing works. They could also create new cultural projects and interventions (e.g., film or TV scripts, songs, music videos, visual art or ads, etc.) with this kind of content. Multiple creative outputs that appeal to the same or similar audience would be deployed in order to reinforce the messaging. After a period of, say one to two years, during which the intended audience was “primed” with this cultural messaging, organizing and policy efforts can then do what they do best — translate people power into real change and into laws.

State & Regional Tables.

We believe that bringing together different creative disciplines and expertises — organizers, campaigners, funders, artists, cultural strategists, storytelling and brand strategists — will lead to integration of culture and storytelling strategy and practice into local and state organizing. We believe that a variety of organizations and campaigns with better storytelling and cultural strategies and skills can change the cultural, organizing and political landscape of a region, and once expanded into other regions, a nation.

A More Perfect Story

To build a fairer, more inclusive America, we must tell powerful stories. Because stories change people. And people make change.

    Erin Potts

    Written by

    I help artists create change. jumpslide.com

    A More Perfect Story

    To build a fairer, more inclusive America, we must tell powerful stories. Because stories change people. And people make change.

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