Can a billboard campaign help in the fight against climate change

Dan Ilic from the podcast A Rational Fear made headlines over the past weeks for placing billboards attacking the Coalition’s climate policies. His ‘JokeKeeper’ campaign has received gushing praise from many commentators, with Jane Caro suggesting that Ilic be made Australian of the Year and comparing him to child sexual assault survivor Grace Tame. While Ilic’s intentions are noble, JokeKeeper demonstrates a misunderstanding of how change happens. If we are serious about climate justice, then we should critically examine our strategies to win.

What exactly is the campaign? Ilic’s fundraising page on Indiegogo describes it as ‘JokeKeeper: Shaming Australia’s climate inaction. Subversive comedy to ridicule fossil fuel supporting parties in the upcoming federal election.’ At time of writing, it has raised over $200,000, with the money used to place billboards in New York’s Time Square, in Glasgow near the COP26 conference and in the electorates of Liberal and National politicians. (Despite being funded by fossil fuel companies and supporting thermal coal exports beyond 2050, Labor apparently is not one of the ‘fossil fuel supporting parties’.) Most of the billboard designs parody Australian tourism ads, eg. a picture of a kangaroo in the outback reading ‘Australia: Net Zero by 2300’ or the ‘Coal-o-phile Dundee’ billboard depicting Morrison as Crocodile Dundee holding a lump of coal.

While these billboards have received a lot of attention, they are a departure from the strategies that have worked in the past. Whether it is the women’s suffrage movement, the eight-hour day, or fighting deforestation, previous progressive movements were successful when they employed two things: direct action and organising.

In an activist context, organising means building democratic structures to build and wield power. Comparisons to other methods of change reveal why organising is so effective.

In How Organizations Develop Activists–Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century Hahrie Han outlines three different ‘models of engagement’: lone wolves, mobilisers and organisers. The lone-wolf approach chooses strategies that don’t need a mass movement, such as advertising, research or court cases. Mobilisers rely on people power, with a central campaign team of staff or key volunteers finding people who agree with a cause and tasking them with actions such as attending a rally or calling a politician. Organisers go further and develop volunteers to be leaders, distributing responsibility across a wide network. Because organisers train others to become organisers themselves, this strategy is scalable.

Han conducted comparative case studies of member-based organisations employing different models, and field experiments to test if changes to an organisation’s actions would have the desired effects in reality. She found that combining mobilising and organising yielded higher rates of activism and better results.

In No Shortcuts: Organising for Power in the New Gilded Age, Jane McAlevey distinguishes again between advocacy (rather than ‘lone wolves’), mobilising and organising. McAlevey analyses a series of labour disputes to demonstrate that unions which follow the organising model were able to pull off majority strikes and achieve the greatest success.

By withdrawing their labour, workers directly affect the income of their employer to force results. This is where weekends, sick leave, and safety laws came from. Workers can also decide what work gets done, as with the Green Bans, where the Builders Laborers Federation refused to work on projects that would damage heritage or green space in Sydney—protecting The Rocks, Kelly’s Bush, Centennial Park and the Botanic Gardens from development.

McAlevey advocates for strikes because they work, and because they are a great ‘structure test’: you can’t pull it off unless you have put in the hard work to organise a majority of relevant workers. This highlights the problem that has befallen so many progressive organisations and political parties, who have spent decades focusing on advocacy, sleek marketing and backroom dealing only to find that their organisations have hollowed out and they have no real power.

Building power through organising is only half the battle, however: you also have to use it. Workers who go on strike are so successful because they aren’t just meekly asking for change. They are achieving change through direct action.

Direct action means exercising power to directly achieve your goals rather than indirect appeals to authority. That could mean not just going on strike but also blocking a coal train or sabotaging logging equipment. When suffragettes smashed windows or Freedom Riders entered segregated pools, they were engaging in direct action.

Awareness campaigns, legal appeals, and electoral politics are examples of indirect action. Indirect action has its uses, but it leaves people like Scott Morrison or Jeff Bezos as the ones making the decisions.

Direct action can have symbolic value, like Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus. Parks’ public act and the subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott captured the public’s imagination more than any article outlining the evils of segregation.

Other methods might work for changes that don’t challenge the dominant power structure, but the fight for climate justice challenges some of the most powerful and entrenched institutions in existence—so we need to bring our big guns. Lobbying, mockery and electioneering might help remove individual politicians but they aren’t enough to break the power of the fossil fuel companies.

While taking direct action as an individual can have an impact, collective action is far more powerful, and building democratic organisations that foster mass action will be more sustainable than ‘lone wolves’ who quickly burn out. To get to that critical mass, you need organising.

The Jokekeeper billboards, by contrast, are extremely indirect. People were asked to contribute money to a series of billboards that appealed to Scott Morrison’s sense of shame, with the hope that this would change his mind about how he approached COP26 and climate policy generally. This approach gives Morrison all the power, and doesn’t require the donors to take further action.

A billboard could conceivably be useful if it builds power, but these don’t. Instead of building capacity, they merely build Dan Ilic’s personal brand. This is a classic advocacy or lone-wolf approach.

The more substantial the method of contact, the more likely it is that it will change somebody’s mind. Political parties understand this. It’s why they put so much effort into their ‘ground game’, training volunteers to knock on doors and make phone calls. A face-to-face conversation is better than a call, which is better than a flyer, which is better than an email, which is better than a poster. Billboards are indirect and unengaging. They aren’t the right tool to change minds about climate change or get people to take action. They might amuse those who already agree with Ilic on climate change, but that is no threat to Morrison.

One of the billboards in Josh Frydenberg’s electorate says ‘It’s time to buy a standing desk … Because you’re about to lose your seat’. It doesn’t mention climate change and would be baffling to anyone who wasn’t already following Ilic. It doesn’t build power, it doesn’t exert any power. It’s not organising or even effective mobilising or advocacy. It’s just expensive trolling.

The money that has been spent on these ephemeral billboards could have gone a long way if it had been put into organising. Grassroots environmental organisations could spend it on training activists, building up leaders to reach more and more new people until we have the power to directly challenge the fossil fuel companies who are wrecking our future. Instead, to put it bluntly, that money has been pissed away.

Dan Ilic clearly has good intentions, but if we are serious about changing the world we need to reflect, engage with the wealth of activist literature, and learn from past struggles. Our future depends on it.

Tom Raue

Tom Raue is a union organiser and activist living on Gadigal land.

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  1. China and India’s economic imperative, the cancerous Military Industrial Complex, the world’s lust for SUVs and international travel the preferred opiate of the middle class, billboards, door knocking, or protests on every street corner of the world will not wake the self interested or the sleeping masses.
    Too little, too late.

  2. I think that I shall never see
    A billboard lovely as a tree.
    Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
    I’ll never see a tree at all.

    Readers make the meanings, so YEs and NO to just what sway billboards may have in effecting socio-political and cultural change. At the level of the individual reader (disengaged cultural change, probably not); and at the level of already socially engaged readers (political change: yes).

    1. Nothing is always simpler and easier than something, so it is easy to throw up your arms and be negative about roping climate change in, thus putting down such an attempt as using billboards to make a climate change difference. Billboards of the a cutting edge computer age type, lots and lots of them in strategic places around the world, could be used in many different ways to engage and mobilise people in a quest to arrest climate change. Should climate change be seen through the technology of such billboards as a living reality, where everyone is welcome to join in and have a role in arresting climate change, the power of people engaged in such a quest as putting paid to climate change could possibly win out. Whose to say otherwise? Just a thought, if not a just thought.

  3. Apart from anything else, the billboards are actually not funny, not well done, and probably completely mystifying to most Americans, who wouldn’t have a clue who our prime minister is or what our climate change policies are. Complete waste of money.

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