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Lawmakers and journalists on Capitol Hill were recently surprised by an activist dressed as the Monopoly Man, also known as Rich Uncle Pennybags, sitting directly behind former Equifax CEO Richard Smith during a Senate Banking Committee hearing. The stunt drew online attention as the Monopoly Man was seen wiping his brow with an oversized hundred dollar bill and even chasing down Smith with a bag of money after the hearing.
The Monopoly Man’s appearance, along with the delivery of Get-Out-of-Jail-Free cards to all 100 Senate offices, drew signification online attention. As the two staffers who envisioned, planned, carried out and promoted the demonstration, we’d like to share some thoughts on why it worked, the strategic thinking behind it and lessons learned from this success.
We struck a nerve.
Americans across the ideological spectrum are dissatisfied with corporate influence, polling shows. Mocking an out-of-touch financial CEO at a congressional hearing – the kind that routinely offers up the theatrics of accountability without the real thing – played directly to these widely held populist sentiments.
We used a familiar face
Rich Uncle Pennybags is an instantly recognizable character, whose appearance evokes far more than just his namesake board game. By placing this character in the foreground of a well-covered congressional hearing, it intuitively called attention to the issues we were trying to promote.
The message was implicit in the situation – no explanation was necessary, even as it called out for one. American culture is filled with familiar characters, imagery and symbolism that could be deployed to make a powerful political statement without saying a word.
We put creativity and communication first.
Many of the leading progressive advocates of this era have embraced a communications style that prioritizes research, facts, numbers, statistics and logical arguments. But as any good political psychologist or communicator will tell you, this bias toward hyper-rationalism is profoundly counterproductive to communication with mass audiences.
The Monopoly Man, the Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card and the bags of fake money told a powerful and accessible story that regular people could relate to, even if they didn’t know much of anything about Equifax or forced arbitration.
We got noticed by following the rules.
Getting the Monopoly Man on camera took planning and work. Interns held spots in line early in the morning to secure seats directly behind Smith. In addition, we did our research to find out the relevant rules of conduct for audiences in a congressional hearing: what kind of behavior would be tolerated by the Capitol Police (as it turns out, an outlandish costume and hilarious mustache twirling are acceptable) and what would get an audience member escorted out (large signage and spoken outbursts).
Our Rich Uncle Pennybags grabbed press attention with an on-camera display that juxtaposed extreme opposites: the serious and the silly; the obscure and the iconic; the mundane and the extraordinary; the corrupt and the pure; even reality and cartoon. Instead of drawing attention through disruption, the Monopoly Man capitalized on the power of distraction.
We offered audiences delight, discovery and surprise.
The Monopoly Man’s appearance made people laugh and want to learn more. Rather than having it force fed to them in a press release, Twitter users and reporters discovered this quirky character for themselves.
The groups that organized the stunt posted supplemental materials online including a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card, snarky interviews with the Monopoly Man and sharable pictures and GIF files. A clever sense of humor and expertise on forced arbitration added enormous value to dozens of press interviews and live Twitter exchanges during and after the hearing to ensure we stayed on message. In fact the Monopoly Man’s “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit drew over 1.2 million views and stands as the eighth most popular of all time.
We planned for success.
When Rich Uncle Pennybags, who was cosplayed by Werner, started to catch attention, we already had everything we needed to react quickly and keep the momentum going: talking points and fact sheets about forced arbitration, press lists with the right contacts, email delivery systems to get the word out quickly, tweeting capabilities, staff availability and more.
Whenever a meme or protest rises from relative obscurity into the national spotlight, there’s a large element of luck and timing that are impossible to predict and control. You can’t make something go viral. But you can study what worked and why, and then use it to plan for future successes.
Rosen is the communications officer on regulatory affairs for Public Citizen and the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards. Werner is the arbitration campaign manager with Americans for Financial Reform and Public Citizen, and the activist who portrayed the Monopoly Man. A version of this piece was originally published at ReThink Media.