Tactics That Tickle: Laughing All the Way to the Win

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, March 24, 2010 to Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining the New Tactics online community for this dialogue on Tactics That Tickle: Laughing All the Way to the Win. Yes, we are working to change serious problems, but that doesn’t mean this work should not use humor as a tool to accomplish our objective!  Humor is a powerful nonviolent tactic that has the ability to prevent and counter activist burnout, engage more supporters, and increase the chance of getting media attention.  It can give you an opportunity to put your opponent in a dilemma – no matter what he does, he has lost.  In this dialogue, practitioners shared advice and resources on using humor, and many examples to inspire you.

Because, after all, isn't laughing the best way to show teeth that bite?” – Philippe Duhamel

In this dialogue, participants discussed the non-violent tactic of implementing humor to successfully convey a group’s message. Humor can be used as a powerful tool to captivate a wide range of audiences, attract media attention, support, generate dialogue, as well as provoke thought.  Participants discussed the various methods which human rights and social justice advocates have used and can put into practice.

The Power of Humor for Nonviolent Resistance

Humor has many functions for accomplishing the various goals and objectives held by groups and advocates.  Contrary to traditional methods, using humor to portray a message can create a platform of mutual understanding.  From this area of common ground, dialogue can be explored between the conflicting parties in a manner which they can examine themselves and understand the other.

The effect of the audacity of humor on the audience also has an immense effect.  By combining the elements of audacity with humor, feelings of rage and anger are decreased.  With the reduction of these, the chances of provoking thought and contemplation are increased.  

Humor is also memorable.  Surprising and innovating approaches to portraying important messages tend to stand out to the audience and have a longer lasting impact.  

The reaction generated by humor can help gain a greater amount of media attention.  This interest can then bring more awareness to the issue from a wider audience.

Humor can also be used as a fear breaker by lessening the tension surrounding the issue. 

Humor is often times faced with overcoming fear and a lack of interest. By utilizing humor, both of these issues can be overcome.  Humor can put people at ease by reducing the tension surrounding the issue and the idea of confrontation.  Often times, difficult topics are being discussed, humor can lessen the pain of discussing them and can create a sense of well-being.  By simply maintaining a positive attitude, you can dictate the responses from the various audiences you encounter.

In addition to helping overcome fear, humor can be used to motivate and engage those who lacked interest.  Humor is a tactic which entertains, surprises, and engages the otherwise uninterested audience into the issue.  By making activism fun, the apathetic can find motivation in a meaningful way.  

Often times, humor can introduce a heavy topic in a funny and catchy manner.  This approach can entice the otherwise apathetic audience to action by grabbing his attention.  Humor can break down barriers and stereotypes and creates an atmosphere which is available to more than one type of personality.  

By portraying a message in an unusual or humorous way, the media will be drawn to cover the event and will bring awareness to the message.  In protests such as the “Billionaires for Bush,” or groups such as “The Raging Grannies,” and “Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army,” the audacity and humor of the acts attract media coverage and brings information to the masses. 

When creating a humorous campaign, the audience which will be receiving your message is an important component to consider.  Audience members can range from those directly involved in the movement to observers. Not only is the audience limited to the targeted listeners and media consumers, but can reach as far as “hear abouts” who receive the message through word of mouth.  By using humor, you can appeal to a wider audience which will reach this vast array of listeners. Humor can also be used to attract potential allies who will further advance the campaign, and possibly attract an international audience.

In order to have an effective campaign, an appropriate audience must be targeted.  Although humor can appeal to a wide audience, you must take into consideration the diverse personalities, ethics, morals and cultural values. To adapt, the humor may need to be adjusted to the fit the different audience members.

Each campaign can range in variety concerning its target audience.  Some may choose to target the “villain” of the issue, whereas others may use humor to attract potential supporters. Others may choose to target businesses, institutions, and individuals in hopes of “opening their eyes” and gaining support.

Finding an appropriate way to deliver your message through the wide array of options available to the public can be troubling.  Through recent technological advances in social media networks such as Facebook, Myspace and Twitter, connecting with the masses can become easier.  With the popularity of social networking websites, conveying an issue and receiving support can occur quickly.  Participants in the discussion noted that although sites such as these can have certain advantages, it may lead to laziness or apathy.  Instead of empowering the website users, the may instead find satisfaction in simply clicking a few links.

Dialogue participants also noted the use of costumes and theatre to successfully convey a message to the public. This can be found in groups such as “The Raging Grannies” who use their seniority as a mode of humor in their campaigns.  Other groups such as the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army create an atmosphere of humor, and joy to act as a buffer between the police and protesters by interacting with them in playful ways. Cartoons can also be used as a form of theatre.

Symbols and songs are effective ways to get the message to “stick” to the audience.  By using a popular or well known song or symbol, the message is better received and understood by the targets audience. These are catchy ways of conveying a message which will be remembered.

Case Studies

Participants in the dialogue shared their experiences with using humor in their campaigns.  Many found that acts of audacity proved to be the most effective in gaining attention and support.  By breaking the typical social taboos and customs in a nonviolent manner, attention is brought to the issue by shocking the target audience.  These campaigns prove to be successful by raising awareness as well as gaining widespread media attention. It was noted however that it is important to realize when harm is and is not being done.  Although physical harm may not occur, material as well as other various forms of harm may occur.  These forms have the potential to essentially “ruin” the joke.  In addition to this, audacity in and of itself is not enough to create a humorous campaign.  Although it may be shocking, it may not necessarily be humorous to all audiences.

Other dialogue participants suggested the use of videos to bring humor in a visual manner to grab the target’s attention.  The Venezuelan group El Chigüire Bipolar used humor in a video which President Hugo Chávez threatens the “Twitter birdie.”  In response to this harmless humor, thousands of people created “remixes” the President’s response video, furthering the humorous campaign.  Videos can also display a visual message which can reach across to endear even those who disagree.  

Using songs and popular symbols is also a popular way to make a message stick to the target audience.  In many cases, lyrics and songs were transformed to fit the campaign.  Soon, audience members were singing the songs!  Using common symbols in a way to address issues can be an effective approach.  This was found in campaigns such as the one led by the Center for Constitutional Rights advocates.  Before Christmas, advocates delivered former President George W. Bush 37,000 copies of the U.S. Constitution via a sleigh while dressed up like Santa Clause.  Symbolic statements such as this, can deliver the appropriate humor to address a serious issue.

It is important to keep attitude and appearance in mind while carrying out a humorous campaign.  This in itself can create a buffer with the police or security, as well as space to welcome those who may not agree with your campaign.  

Common Challenges and Risks

A common issue faced while creating a humorous campaign is using humor as a tool and trying to identify when you are stepping over the line.  It is important to keep the audience laughing with you during your campaign.  While running a campaign, one must be sure that they do not overstep the boundaries to the point that no one is laughing. Using humor can be tricky.  By staying in a “comfort zone,” not audacity or humor will arise, this compromises humor as a tool which can explore tricky areas and issues to be discussed. It is best to attempt to predict your audience’s reaction and incorporate it into your campaign in order to convey a successful humorous campaign.

Another issue to combat in using fear is not being taken seriously.  Humor comes with an element of fun and goofiness.  The important message should not be lost through the uncanny approach of conveying it. By combining humor with an element of seriousness, the message can be best understood by the target audiences.

Resources and Tools

  • Humor is the answer, short clip and extract from awarded documentary by Steve York “Bringing Down The Dictator”
  • 10 Tactics for turning information into action
  • Yes Men: online community
  • I.D.E.A. Proccess
    • I = Ideas. Everything is on the table, no idea is too crazy. In fact you need to go crazy to be able to find the really interesting ideas.
    • D = Development. This is where those ideas are taken for a little walk in reality. "D" is where you try to answer the question "How can we make this work". It doesn't destroy the idea, but puts a few parameters around it and sees what we can do to improve it. Often this is where consultants will come in, people "authorised" to explore.
    • E = Evaluation. Where the rubber hits the road, where bad ideas get rejected. But not rejected in that they can't reach reality. An idea that fails the "E" stage goes back to Development to see if the issues can be resolved creatively.
    • A = Action. This is the doing, where it all comes to life

Conversation Leaders

James Fehon's picture
James Fehon
Amnesty International Australia
Kathleen's picture
Kathleen Cameron
Art Action Union - Creative Activism
Annie Sloman's picture
Annie Sloman
International Development Practitioner
srdja popovic's picture
Srdja Popovic
Sojourner's picture
Bruce Hartford
Civil Rights Movement Veterans
L. M. Bogad's picture
Lawrence Bogad
University of California at Davis
Marco Ceglie's picture
Marco Ceglie
Billionaires For Wealthcare
Juan Ravell's picture
Juan Ravell
El Chigüire Bipolar