The public library in Troy, Michigan was facing being shut down forever. The municipality had to make major cuts to its budget and there simply wasn’t enough cash to go around to maintain all vital local government services as well as keep the library’s doors open. The matter was set for a referendum asking the citizens of Troy if they would accept a 0.7% hike in their town’s property tax rate to save the library, otherwise where would be no choice but to close the doors. The vote seemed as if it was going to be overwhelmingly turned down and the library would face doom.
Reverse psychology at its finest
This is where the major ad agency Leo Burnett Detroit stepped in. With a miniscule budget of just $3,500 and six weeks to go before the vote they anonymously set out to turn the anti-tax trend around and save the library. Leo Burnett’s plan to save the agency was reverse psychology at its finest. They started posting lawn signs all over Troy that read:
Vote to close Troy library Aug. 2
Book burning party Aug. 5
Creating an aura of pseudo-reality
The signs had their intended effect as that Facebook page was soon hammered by thousands of comments outraged by the thought of burning over 200,000 valuable books. Leo Burnett did not stop at the lawn signs as they created a full aura of pseudo-reality around the event. The agency:
- Crafted check-ins to the party
- Posted announcements about the band that would be playing
- How to arrange for a babysitter when attending the party
- Posted ads for an ice cream vendor and a clown entertainer
- Compiled polls on Facebook as to which books should be saved from the flames
However, one of the most brilliant ploys was the creation of a YouTube video showing a few books being burned with the line: Imagine this times 200,000. How cool is that? The story caught fire more than the books that were going to be burned. It soon made headlines across Michigan and spread like wildfire nationally and internationally, getting play in nearly every country around the world.
The library was saved by a landslide vote
Leo Burnett managed to turn the sentiment in Troy against a tax increase into one that overwhelmingly favored saving the library. When the voters went to the polls they came out in unprecedented levels of more than three times greater than expected. Of course, the library was saved by a huge majority and the tax increase was implemented. The agency won as well as they won a series of major advertising industry awards for that little campaign that kept a library’s doors open by the promulgation of inflammatory threats straight out of Fahrenheit 451.
A hoax has to avoid the danger of blowback
The fact that Leo Burnett Detroit created a massive hoax which did have the desired effect is a lesson for all social media marketers seeking success in unorthodox campaigns. It doesn’t take a huge budget or a massive investment of time, resources, and effort in order to make a huge splash with a very carefully chosen hoax. It is important to note that not all hoaxes are automatically fodder for a social media campaign as the selection of the subject matter has to fit seamlessly into the brand and not face any danger of blowback. A fashion shoe brand stating that its high heels lead to ankle dislocation, or a smartphone brand showing its distracted users falling into open manholes would likely create more long term harm for the brand than good. However if you pick your battles very carefully and apply humor with a great deal of sensitivity a hoax campaign could definitely put you on the honor roll of great brand hoaxers.
Leo Burnett’s brilliant approach to the creation of an imaginary event on social media galvanized an entire community and had the desired effect. Any social media brand marketer faced with headwinds can adopt a similar tack to change the conversation and gain the upper hand. All it takes is imagination and a dab of courage.