The Case of the Conegate in Glasgow may seem like a frivolous example, but it has important lessons for activists.
The city of Glasgow has a statue of the Duke of Wellington outside the Gallery of Modern Art. For decades, there has been a long tradition among local people – usually after a drink or two – of placing a traffic cone on its head. This is in keeping with the city’s egalitarian culture, good humour and distrust of authority.
Then, in November 2013, the council announced it was planning to spend £65,000 to raise the plinth of the statue to stop people putting the cone on the statue. They claimed it created a negative image of the city.
A petition was launched on change.org, and shared on social media.
The Keep the Cone campaign quickly got 95,000 likes on Facebook.
It soon got domestic and international news attention. Within 24 hours, more than 10,000 people had signed the petition, and the council withdrew its plans.
So why was Conegate successful and what can we learn from it?
- It was light-hearted, and had an angle that was attractive to the media
- It was backed by serious work – one of the campaigners submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the council, and showed that their claims about the cost of removing the cone were false. Another campaigner had academic credentials in heritage, and was able to argue that the cone had significance to Glaswegians
- It was easy to share on social media, with the #conegate hashtag
- It engaged local people, who felt they should have a say in how the city represents itself, rather than leaving it to faceless bureaucrats
- Ordinary people were invited to participate, either through social media, or in impromptu demonstrations at the statue. People made placards, and even knitted traffic cone woolly hats.
- It used a simple narrative – out of touch, faceless bureaucrats versus a fun-loving city
- The aims of the campaign were modest. The media attention embarrassed the council and they withdrew the plans.
The campaign was non-threatening, funny – maybe even a bit of a wind-up – but it worked! It was a huge amount of fun for all the participants – except for the council! There are so many serious issues in the world that sometimes activists get outrage fatigue: with so many campaigns aiming to stir up their indignation and get them to take action, many people just feel worn out.
Many of the issues we campaign on are serious, and demand serious work. But is there a way you can present your campaign that is interesting, engaging and even funny? You might be a lot more successful in attracting supporters.