March 19, 2012

ACT-UP’s key to success: combining emotion and reason

It’s been a while since I posted about political marketing, but two New York Times articles the same day raised subjects I’d like to share. One delves into the success of the AIDS activism group ACT-UP. The big lesson is that ACT-UP relied on both emotional impact and persuasive, rational detail. In particular (emphasis mine):

What you probably remember best about Act Up is its theatrical genius (or gall, depending on your sensibility). Its members held a “die-in” during a Mass inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, going limp in the aisles so that police officers had to use stretchers to carry them away. They hurled the ash and bone of fallen comrades over the fence around the White House and onto the lawn.

But if boldness had been the sum of Act Up, the group wouldn’t have accomplished so much. It added enterprise and erudition to the mix. A friend of mine who covered an Act Up demonstration in San Francisco remembers standing in the street, chatting over the phone with a group spokesman and telling him that she would file her newspaper story as soon as she rounded up a certain statistic. Minutes later he called back, said that he had found a Kinko’s store nearby and told her that documents with the information she was seeking had already been faxed to her there.

In “How to Survive a Plague,” gay men and their allies are shown educating themselves about antiviral medications, about clinical-trial protocols, about the Food and Drug Administration approval process. They are shown successfully making the case that the trials should be less restrictive, and the process much faster. Because what they’re saying is so concrete and constructive, scientists can’t avoid paying it heed.

“If you come at a problem in a way that’s just disruptive and iconoclastic, but you don’t know what you’re talking about, all you are is a nuisance,” said Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, when we talked last week. Act Up’s leaders, he told me, knew what they were talking about. As a result, they “cracked open the opaque process” of drug development, altered the patient-doctor relationship and “changed the whole face of advocacy,” he said.

In my opinion, the article’s estimation of ACT-UP’s impact is only modestly overstated. In fact, I think the rapid swing in public opinion regarding the importance of AIDS can be traced to three principle factors, at least in the US, namely:

Even if you don’t wholly agree, you should at least concede that ACT-UP commanded more respect and influence than small groups of liberal extremists usually do. So it’s instructive to examine the reasons for ACT-UP’s success.

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