Spetner: #MeToo, gun control, and when a cause ignites the public

How to bring social issues into greater public conscious.

Something is going on. Two giant social issues — sexual harassment and gun control — morphed in the past six months from chronic wounds to active campaigns, resulting in significant and transformative change. 

In the case of sexual harassment, the #MeToo movement emerged, and in its wake, longstanding perpetrators were outed, fired, and even prosecuted. This transformation occurred in the worlds of politics, media, entertainment, finance, and nonprofits. Suddenly, we are no longer willing to tolerate bad behavior.

Similarly, a groundswell of grassroots activism rose up against gun violence. Within days of the Florida school shooting, a nationwide March for Our Lives was organized, a group of students had an audience with the president, and CNN hosted a live town hall to address gun violence. 

Corporate sponsors began disassociating with the National Rifle Association, and Wal-Mart and other mass retailers enacted their own gun control policies.

Why were the responses on these two long-standing issues so stridently different this time? Clearly technology plays a role, as the proliferation of digital evidence and the power of social media can dramatically accelerate a grassroots movement. And the existence of villains and victims drives emotional and visceral responses. But these factors have existed for years without significantly moving public response on many issues. What created the tipping point?

This is something I’ve tried to decipher for decades. I first noticed it in the late 1980s when I worked for Nissan. At that time, there was a long-running debate in the automotive industry over the efficacy of airbags. The federal government required automakers to equip all cars with passive restraint systems, which meant airbags or passive seat belts. You might remember those annoying automated shoulder belts that slid over your body when the car door closed.

Car companies delayed installing airbags primarily because of cost, but also because there wasn’t clear data proving airbags were safer. In 1988, Chrylser decided to offer airbags as standard equipment in all of its models. They also began advertising heavily to promote this safety enhancement. But, initially, the public didn’t really buy in, and there wasn’t much pressure for competitors to follow suit. 

Then an obscure incident galvanized the issue and changed the playing field. On March 12, 1990, two Chrysler LeBarons collided in Culpeper, Virginia. The crash demolished both cars, but the drivers walked away with minor injuries thanks to their airbags. The publicity was immediate and enormous, with coverage in papers, magazines, radio, and TV. Chrysler seized on the crash and heavily promoted the availability of airbags in all its models.

Nissan felt the pressure to respond, as did other manufacturers, and airbags became standard equipment by the end of the decade. I was fascinated by this catalytic event and wondered if there was any way to manufacture a coalescing incident that could tip public opinion in favor of a particular issue, product, or offering.

I never figured it out. There are a number of companies working with analytics to try and crack the code, and perhaps identify where significant issues might be percolating and what specific factors could ignite a public response.

But maybe that’s a waste of time. Perhaps this "phenomenon" goes way beyond data, comms strategy, or careful planning. Maybe the cosmos simply comes together when it’s time for change, and we respond accordingly.

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