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May 2005
Free Range Activism: The Art of Marketing Social Change
The Satya Interview with Jonah Sachs


Grocery Store Wars
Store Wars. Poster by Louis Fox, Free Range Graphics
Still from The Meatrix.
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 pass on?
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 minds.

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 to spread.

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 To learn the truth about factory farming go to To fight the dark side of genetically modified foods visit



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