Occupy This Message

by Alex Mangiola


It was more than a year ago today that countless worldwide Occupy encampments began to dismantle, but the “leaderless people-powered movement” had lost its mojo long before the tents came down. Even before it went away, marketing and PR types were busy musing that it was the lack of clarity behind the movement’s message that was to blame for its looming demise. Others said that Occupy was doomed to fade away because it emerged in an era when mass movements and the conditions supporting them – at least in the West – simply didn’t exist anymore.

The Occupy movement was set in motion by Kalle Lasn, the influential media critic and publisher of activist magazine Adbusters. In September of 2011, Lasn commissioned the now famous poster of a ballerina perched on top of the iconic Wall Street bull, with the question “What is our one demand?” and the words “September 17” and “Bring Tent.” Most importantly, the poster unveiled for the first time the Twitter hashtag #occupywallstreet.

They definitely brought tents, and the Occupy movement – and the brand – went global. It was difficult not to be inspired by people young and old mobilizing behind a common cause, even if the cause came with some pretty tall orders: Stand up against the one-percent and end the moneyed corruption of our democracy were chief among them, but there were many others. Few may have been able to articulate why they were there, but at least they showed up – and it wasn’t to throw bottles at Starbucks or to tip over cars.

Occupy may not have been driven by the same euphoria that drove the civil rights movement or the anti-war protests of the 1960s, but the protesters had each other’s backs, and they were adamant that things had to change. But Occupy and the protests eventually became lackluster, and some might argue it wasn’t long before the whole thing began to feel pointless.

According to the Occupy philosophy, the movement stood for an open, non-hierarchical socio-political order where group consensus ruled. There was no single agenda, because everyone in the movement was entitled to foster their own agenda with equal spirit. If they agreed on one thing, it was that democracy had lost its way, that corruption and greed had become the norm, and that it was time to hit the reset button.

The media paid ample attention to Occupy protests and encampments around the world, and most people consumed the news with interest, but the average news consumer today would be hard-pressed to reiterate what that message actually was.

As communicators who get paid to impart good advice, we dutifully tell our clients that in order for any campaign to be successful over a long period of time, goals have to be defined so that simple, clear messages can be articulated to target audiences. Political pundits will also argue that a movement needs leaders to set a clear agenda, land on a consistent message track, and look for sympathetic ears who will support their point-of-view.

So is that what happened to Occupy? Did the movement need to establish a clearer message track? Or was the mass media itself too blunt an instrument with which to distill Occupy’s soft message to the world?

When authorities around the world began to enforce ultimatums, telling the protesters “Ok, we heard you, now it’s time to go home,” it was disappointing to see the peaceful resolve with which most Occupy encampments obliged and dismantled.

A year later, big banks remain powerful. Household debt across the industrialized world is higher than ever, North Americans’ home equity and personal savings are depleted, and young professionals are graduating with student-loan debt that in the U.S. alone is reported to top a record $1 trillion.

But regardless of how slow change may come, many would argue that Occupy changed something in all of us. “We are the 99%” captured the zeitgeist in a way few other social movements have. Now, one year later, people may be asking whether the movement made any difference at all. Perhaps time will tell. What is undeniable, though, is that it catapulted Occupy into what may be one of the most enduring brands of the early 21st century.