Leo Burnett changes the conversation from “anti-tax” to “public good”

I never thought I would be writing in praise of an advertising agency, but Leo Burnett of Detroit deserves credit for its Effie award-winning, breakthrough advertising campaign to save the library in Troy, Michigan. Utilizing bold creativity and controversial messaging, they won a tax increase for the community and saved the town’s library from having to close and sell off its books.

Scheduled to close in spring 2011, the library got permission to hold one more election in August to raise taxes enough to keep its doors open. If it failed, it would close forever on August 5. Leo Burnett was approached in mid June, late in the game. It was tasked to get voters to approve a tax increase in one of the worst economies the state had ever seen. Corporate funded anti-tax voices were drowning out those in favor of saving the library, and they had a four-month head start. Leo Burnett only had six weeks to mount a campaign with a very small budget. Finally, the election would be held on August 2, in the simmering midwestern heat.

Disrupting the conversation

They brainstormed a strategy. First, they realized they would have to disrupt the conversation—which for years had been dominated by anti-tax, anti-public, corporate backed austerity zealots—before they could change it. They would do this by initiating a campaign that pushed the limits of the anti-tax rhetoric to its logical, albeit distasteful, conclusion. If the tax increase failed, the library would close and be forced to sell its books. The agency staff, pushing the envelope, reasoned the effect would be the same as burning the books. So, they put up signs around town that said “Vote to close Troy Library August 2, Book Burning party August 5,” and launched a Facebook campaign to go along with it.

The controversial part was, of course, that it was a hoax. Outflanking the Tea Party, they posed as an anti-intellectual fringe group that wanted to see the library tax increase fail. Even the library didn’t know the campaign was fake. The yard signs and the Facebook page attracted outrage from Troy citizens. Leo Burnett let this go on for three weeks, but two days before the election they added a redirect to their Facebook page.

Refocusing the conversation

Now that they had stolen the limelight from the Tea Party and had everyone’s attention, they would initiate phase 2 and refocus the conversation on the real issues at stake. The new landing page had a large message in white letters against a blue background: “A vote against the library is like a vote to burn books.” They began posting on their Facebook wall under the name “No Book Burning Party,” and encouraged conversation about the value of books and the merits of libraries. They got the townspeople to talk about what it would be like to have their beautiful library and its wonderful books gone for good. The news spread from Facebook to newspapers, to TV and nationally across the Web. Optimistic projections estimated voter turnout at 19%, but actual turnout was 38%. The library won by a landslide.

Would a straightforward discussion of the value of libraries have worked? It hadn’t in two previous elections, where tax increases to fund the library failed. Something had to be done to disrupt the corporate funded, anti-tax rhetoric, and the hoax campaign focusing on the reality of the right-wing agenda accomplished that. Public outcry over the book burning provided space for a real conversation about the value of a tax-supported public sphere. Leo Burnett did a good thing for Troy, and in the process, gave us some creative ideas for countering the right wing narrative that dominates public discourse.