Suddenly finding it’s almost the end of 2012, I thought about the most notable communications campaigns I’ve encountered in the last year.

One that stands out for me is not from the corporate world but a controversial campaign by Greenpeace, using unorthodox methods to provoke disgust about oil exploration in sensitive environments. You may have seen this too.

Greenpeace masqueraded as Shell, creating a fake website entitled ‘Let’s Go! Shell in the Arctic’, ‘promoting’ Shell’s plans to take advantage of the ‘biggest opportunity’ of the melting Arctic by drilling in Alaska.

The site’s content is cleverly pitched not to be too obviously a hoax. It encourages people to create their own online ads on the site to promote Shell’s Arctic activity. It even invites them to vote for which endangered animal Shell should make an ‘extra effort’ to avoid harming, with the latest poll results tastelessly illustrated by a chart with images of the animals.

The campaign has provoked the desired outrage amongst many who’ve posted anti-Shell messages – and created anti-Shell ads – on the site. And presumably they’ve gone off to share their disgust with anyone who’ll listen.

It reminds me of a similar recent exercise in the US town of Troy, Michigan, which also harnessed outrage to drive people to take action.

The fate of the town library depended on the result of a community vote: agree to 0.7% local tax rise or see the facility shut down.

Anti-tax groups campaigned hard against the tax rise, so library supporters took radical counter-action. They masqueraded as an extreme anti-library group and ‘campaigned’ vigorously – not only to shut the library but for a public ‘book burning party’ to destroy its contents.

They used multiple channels supposedly to rally support – social media, local press plus good old fashioned flyers and signs all over the town. They even invited people to vote on where the books should be burnt.

Unsurprisingly, this grabbed the community’s attention. It provoked the desired disgust amongst people who may have been too apathetic to vote or won over by the anti-tax lobby. They voted by a landslide to save the library.

This video from the organisers vividly summarises the campaign.

Both the library and Greenpeace cases are great examples of the power of audacious, unorthodox approaches. Both recognised that people would be taken in if they heard about the campaigns via their friends and trusted media channels.

But these are also high-risk strategies based entirely on duping their target audiences. People generally don’t like to be hood-winked and feel foolish when they realise they have been.

The library campaigners got away with it because it was a one-off issue and they didn’t have a long term reputation to nurture. Library saved = job done.

Any long-standing organisation is in a very different situation: trust would surely be jeopardised by deception.

Certainly Greenpeace sparked a backlash from those who found out they’d been fooled (“F U Greenpeace. I’m now going out to kill a whale”). I imagine they won’t support Greenpeace in the future and have shared their hostility widely.

So there’s great inspiration to be had from the audacity, creativity and clever execution of these campaigns. But somehow I doubt I’ll recommend that any of my clients deceive their target audiences in 2013.


What are the most interesting campaigns you’ve seen in 2012?