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Guest Blog Post: How the Monopoly Man Captivated the Press and Won the Internet

October 13, 2017 - 9:38am
With the Monopoly Man, we took a chance – and it paid off handsomely
The best heroes have a way of showing up when you least expect them and exactly when you need them the most.
 
On the morning of Oct. 4, reporters and Twitter users were surprised and delighted to discover an activist dressed as the Monopoly Man sitting directly behind former Equifax CEO Richard Smith at a U.S. Senate Banking Committee hearing. The stunt enraptured viewers as the Monopoly Man was seen adjusting a monocle, 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 and the delivery of Get Out of Jail Free cards to all 100 U.S. Senate offices the previous day was intended to draw attention to the lack of accountability for financial institutions like Equifax and Wells Fargo – in particular, a push in the Senate to preserve these companies’ use of forced arbitration to block ripped off customers from taking them to court. 
 
The Monopoly Man’s appearance got more attention than anyone could have imagined. As the two staffers who envisioned, planned, carried out and promoted the demonstration, we’d like to share some thoughts on why it worked – some of the strategic thinking behind it and lessons learned from this success. 
 
We struck a nerve. Right now, Americans across the ideological spectrum are fed up with broken government and a complete lack of accountability for corporate criminals and wrongdoers. 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. The Monopoly Man 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 hearing about a debased financial institution, it intuitively called attention to the predations and excesses of billionaires and big banks. 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, like the Monopoly Man, could be deployed to make a powerful political statement without saying a word.
 
We put creativity and communication first. The Monopoly Man’s appearance – and the other tactics surrounding it – put metaphor over literal precision, style over substance, image over text, and fun over facts. 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 former Equifax CEO Richard 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 (e.g. an outlandish costume and hilarious mustache twirling) and what would get an audience member escorted out (e.g. large signage and spoken outbursts). The Monopoly Man 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, similar to finding an Easter egg hidden on a DVD. Every click offered up a new surprise, rewarding interest. 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. Equally intriguing was Werner’s willingness to openly engage users as a real person. Werner’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 the Monopoly Man started to catch on, 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. In other words, Public Citizen and Americans for Financial Reform had the technical and human resources needed to make the most of a big opportunity when it came along.
 
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. With the Monopoly Man, we took a chance – and it paid off handsomely.
 
David Rosen is the communications officer on regulatory affairs for Public Citizen and the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards. Amanda Werner is the arbitration campaign manager with Americans for Financial Reform and Public Citizen, and the activist who portrayed the Monopoly Man.
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