Succeeding by failing

I was at an NPC-hosted debate about campaigning this week where somebody cited No More Page 3 as an example of a successful combined online-and-offline campaign. In response, another panel member pointed out that Page 3 is still there, and so logically the campaign should not be claimed as a success.

How long Page 3 will still be there is a moot question. It seems a fair bet that its days are numbered.

But for the purposes of this post, I’m more interested in how we think about what constitutes success. Especially in the light of the recent critique by NPC, that charities are defending campaigning ‘without knowing whether it works‘.

I’ve co-written something longer and hopefully-soon-to-be-published on valuing campaigning. The summary version is that challenges like this one from NPC should be welcomed, as helping to encourage the campaigning sector’s accountability. But also that it’s easy to – but important not to – define campaigning success in narrow and reductionist terms that may miss what is actually most important.

And NMP3 is a great example of this. Assessment of its success or otherwise pivots on a paradox. It’s a campaigning embodiment of Schrodinger’s quantum thought experiment.

NMP3 occupies a dual state of being simultaneously unsuccessful (in literal terms, of not having yet achieved the notional central goal) but also extraordinarily successful (in many other ways).

On the success side of the equation, the campaign has revived a dormant discussion about a pervasive and corrosive relic and has placed it in mainstream debate. As part of this, it has achieved some good traction in linking NMP3 to broader issues of sexualisation and objectification, and gender politics more widely.

NMP3 has opened up and occupied new flanks of debate, reached and inspired wide audiences, seeded local activist groups, and created a broad alliance for change – encompassing student unions, the Guides & the Children’s Commissioner for Wales – not to mention building a massive support base.

And the campaign is increasingly highlighting and challenging – and hopefully helping to unravel – a broader nexus of acceptance of Page 3 and similar. For example in exposing the dissonance between, and the cynicism underlying, supermarkets’ aspirations towards being family facing alongside their advertising collaborations with the Sun, the Star etc.

All of these things are creating new trajectories that will play out in ways that go far beyond the binary question facing the Sun about Page 3.

In these ways, the campaign is a great archetype of the ‘the little big thing

What in the old days we used to call a wedge issue: something specific that may not necessarily be the most important thing in itself, but is symptomatic and illustrative of, and so opens up space to progress, much wider concerns.

And in this case, whilst the little thing is not yet resolved, the big thing continues to gain momentum.

So you might say that the campaign’s success stems from its failure. The ripples of the campaign, its reach, and its impacts on wider debate, all result from the campaign target’s continuing resistance to addressing the central ask.

Victory for the campaign could now be on its way. Meanwhile, the longer the campaign fails, the more successful it is.

 

One Comment

  1. Jeremy says:

    On the one hand, it is quite right to measure the ripple effects of a campaign that go beyond a specific objective and may ultimately be more significant than achievement of that objective. On the other hand, there would still be a need to avoid over-claiming these ripple effects as being (a) significant and (b) due to the campaign in question. You would ideally want to have a vision at the outset of a campaign what the possible reverberations might be, which is not to say that you should expect to be able to predict everything but you should be able to form a picture of the sorts of bigger shifts that you hope to trigger.

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