Range Activism: The Art of Marketing Social Change
The Satya Interview with
Wars. Poster by Louis Fox, Free Range Graphics
Still from The
Courtesy Free Range Graphics
Millions of viewers worldwide
took the red pill in The Meatrix and learned the truth about factory
farming. With flash animation and the
power of the Internet, the Washington DC-based design firm Free Range
Graphics took an unpleasant and complex subject and turned it into
the most popular item in cyberspace.
Free Range Graphics essentially mixes creative consultancy and design to sell
ideas for social change. Clients have included larger nonprofits like Greenpeace,
the ACLU, Amnesty International, and political campaigns like Dean for America
and Kerry for President. Free Range also reaches out to spread the messages of
smaller organizations and donates their services through their Gratitude Grants.
From conflict diamonds to CAFTA, Free Range’s campaigns convey a powerful,
simple message that you want to pass on to your friends, an effect called ‘viral
marketing.’ Free Range co-founder, Jonah Sachs spoke with Sangamithra
Iyerabout their ‘sales’ strategies and art of marketing social change.
When and why did you start Free Range Graphics?
We started in 1999. We felt that there really was a need for some new life and
thinking in the progressive political and activism design world. A lot of great
work was happening in many organizations, but they weren’t being effectively
heard. We were hoping to create some new models for working with small budgets
to be heard above the din of advertising and other media out there. We wanted
to give nonprofits a competitive chance against the major corporations and other
messages that we receive every day.
Why the name ‘free range’?
Well, to be honest, we had been making movies before, and the company was called
Free Range Films, partly because it sounded good and partly because it encapsulates
our willingness to think as broadly and widely as possible. It’s also a
funny approach to weed out the clients who get us and the ones who don’t.
The people who love the name will probably like our work and the people who don’t
like it or don’t understand it, probably wouldn’t. And finally, it
overlaps with some of the issues we really care about—obviously the idea
of a more humane organic process even though we are not a food company. Since
we are well known for The Meatrix, a lot of people think we just do food issues,
but that’s really not the case at all.
As you mentioned before, we live in a consumer culture and are often bombarded
with different types of advertising. What are the challenges you find in trying
to sell ideas for social change in this environment?
I think the challenges are the obvious ones. We are under-funded and can’t
buy the media time that other companies can. Also the space in people’s
brains is so full right now with negative messages that they instinctively want
to reject. In a lot of ways we can’t use the same tools corporate advertisers
use because people’s filters are so intense and so high.
Those are the obvious challenges. Another challenge is getting our clients to
step away from their way of talking and thinking about their missions and really
getting them to think like a corporation. Corporations directly pursue their
bottom line and profit at any cost, and it’s hard to teach our clients
how to pursue their bottom line of social change at any cost. We are always trying
to push them to simplify their message and make it digestible.
But I think that some of those challenges have also provided opportunities. We
are always really happy doing Internet flash work because in so many ways, even
though we have less money to work with and less brand recognition, we have the
advantage. Corporate flash movies and viral pieces tend not to get passed around
because people don’t want to advertise to their friends, but if they are
educating their friends, passing the idea around is a gift rather than a burden.
We actually have found that some of our flash movies have done better than any
of the corporate flash movies that have ever been released.
Could you talk about this concept of ‘viral marketing’?
The idea is that instead of feeding advertising to people, you feed it to a small
group and hope that they become messengers for you. People argue about the terminology,
whether it is a good word for it, but it certainly is ‘peer to peer.’ It’s
definitely more challenging than making a television ad. In a television ad,
you have a captive audience, and all you have to do is make them chuckle or feel
something. We are asking you not only to enjoy our work, but enjoy it so much
that you’ll open your address book and send it on. A huge part of our strategy,
however, is focusing on what is likely to get passed around, which requires a
whole different kind of thinking.
Can you talk about the creative process behind some of your ads and how you simplify
complex messages of social change into something people understand and want to
The key to the creative process is to find where the emotional thread really
is, and that’s no different than somebody marketing a sneaker or a gallon
of milk. You have to find a way to reach someone visually, where someone sees
their identity, their personality, and their emotional sensor. If a new report
comes out about complicated global warming statistics that no one understands,
how can you make it an instantly recognizable and emotional message? How do you
tie into the things that we know people are thinking about and feeling? That’s
why very often some kind of pop cultural reference comes into it. Corporations
have spent millions of dollars putting an emotional association with certain
images in people’s heads, and we piggy-back off of that. We pick emotions
we know already work, the forms that we know people will respond to, and twist
them to have a more socially conscious message.
But it’s not an automatic process. You can’t just say American Idol
is cool so let’s make it about global warming. It doesn’t work that
way. It’s a painful, exhausting process, with a lot of banging your head
against the table and crying, but what you try to do is build some small bridges
between something people already know about and something they don’t.
So with The Meatrix, for instance, when we were concepting the piece, we made
a bridge between what a factory farm looks like and that scene in The Matrix
when everyone is in a feeding pod. That was the first spark. Little did we know
then, there were so many other connections that would eventually fall into place.
Coincidentally or by fate, Morpheus sounds like Moopheus and The Matrix sounds
like The Meatrix. The title was actually the last thing to fall into place. We
had the whole thing written, and for some reason were struggling with the title,
and then when it came up, it was like ‘Oh my God!’
When enough bridges get built, you know something is meant to be and the audience
knows too. As human beings, we share the same pleasure of seeing somebody morphing
one idea into the next seamlessly, and it’s why people love spoken word
poetry or hip-hop music because there is a flow to it.
What project has been the most fun to work on?
The next big challenge is always the most fun for me. One thing that is coming
up this month is for the Organic Trade Association. We are doing a Star Wars
spoof about fighting against the dark side of genetically modified foods. It’s
going to be live-action with vegetables playing the characters, like Cuke Skywalker,
Darth Tater and Princess Lettuce.
In some ways the fun comes after it is all done and you send it out there and
sit back and watch your message spread. With The Meatrix, I’ve been really
pleased that not only have a lot of people seen it, and a lot of people laughed
at it, but also by the number of people who told me that it helped them grasp
an issue and really changed their perspective. That’s something really
satisfying to me and something that maybe only comes along once in a lifetime.
I’m not necessarily expecting that kind of impact from everything we do,
but it’s been really wonderful to see an issue that we once thought was
untouchable—too difficult and too unpleasant for people to hear about—resonate
in this way. We changed some minds.
So The Meatrix has been the project that has received the most response?
The Meatrix was the most popular thing on the Internet for a few weeks, receiving
seven million visitors. That was the most successful thing we’ve done in
terms of mass appeal.
But, the diamonds piece that we did for Amnesty International was a major part
of getting a Clean Diamonds Bill passed on the hill. It went from a long-shot
to a victory pretty quickly.
We also did a guerilla flash movie with the Beastie Boys for Students for a Free
Tibet to try to save the life of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a monk who was going
to be executed by the Chinese government. We made some downloadable stencils
for spray-painting Tenzin Delek’s face on sidewalks and walls that got
all over Europe, Asia, and the U.S. And quickly and mysteriously, the Chinese
government came out of nowhere and commuted his death sentence. That was a really
big success, but obviously not as well recognized as The Meatrix. But we didn’t
close any factory farms with The Meatrix, so sometimes the campaigns with real
world impact are even more important than the ones that just change people’s
Could you talk a bit more about tracking and measuring the impact of your campaigns?
It depends on the client’s goals. These things are not just made for fun,
but to have a certain return on their investment. There is a science to it. There
are a lot of tools you can use with the flash movie to get people involved. A
lot of clients measure the return based on how many emails they get from the
campaign. Some of the ads are just fundraising appeals, measured by how many
dollars are raised. A lot of times things are made just to get it on the mainstream
media. We’ve had quite a few pieces make that leap from the Internet to
television. Basically, you try to get a free advertisement on TV where you put
it on the Internet and hopefully someone will run it as content on a news channel.
Can you tell us about the Free Range Gratitude Grants you offer?
That started two years ago with The Meatrix. We try to get organizations to really
think about how they can use our services to push forward their brand and their
message. We are trying to reach out to ones who may not be able to afford us,
to bring something forth into the world that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Last year we worked with the League of Pissed Off Voters, and organized contests
around the country for hip hop and slam poetry artists to oppose Bush and made
a movie to go with it. Grants let us experiment a little more and that’s
also why we do it. Sometimes it is a bit of a strain on our budget, but it does
connect us to the community. We are definitely very dependent on the goodwill
of this community to keep our stuff going because so much is loyalty, being passed
from like-minded organizations to like-minded organizations.
What role do you think art plays in activism?
Well, when I think of activism, I’ve been comparing it to the corporate
marketplace. There is a marketplace of ideas out there. Ideas are products and
nobody puts out a product without the right personality attached to it. That
personality does not necessarily correspond directly to the idea itself, it is
something that you have to add onto so that it can grow and take on a life of
its own. And often in our culture, the way that you give personality to an idea
or product is through the visuals and the words that go with it. I think it is
a little bit naïve perhaps to think that an idea spreads based on the merit
of the idea itself. I see design and art as giving an idea its life and its ability
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I really appreciate the work that you guys do. A movement of global consciousness
raising is being done by a whole alternative culture. I just think the work you
are doing and the work we are doing—pulling together an alternative set
of choices for people—is creating a shadow lifestyle that mirrors and improves
on mass culture. I’m hoping we all keep building in that way as a team.
For more information see www.freerangegraphics.com. To learn the truth about
factory farming go to www.themeatrix.com. To fight the dark side of genetically
modified foods visit www.storewars.org.