Back in February of 2010, the municipality of Troy, Mich., was forced to make some tough decisions regarding city funding for public personnel and services. As a result of a 20 percent decrease in property value and mounting pressure from the local Tea Party movement, Troy Citizens United, the Troy Public Library was placed on the fiscal chopping block. The city put up for vote a library-only tax increase of 0.7 percent to provide operational funds. Twice the vote plundered, however, as a result of heavy anti-tax campaigns implemented by the Tea Party.
The library was scheduled to close in the spring of 2011, but local supporters rallied to try one last time to pass the tax increase. Despite the consecutive losses, a final vote was scheduled for August 2 with the library set to close its doors on August 5 if the ballot again failed. The Troy community needed something miraculous.
Anonymously, Leo Burnett Detroit decided to throw its weight behind the effort. With a budget of only $3,500 and less than six weeks to reverse the anti-tax penchant, the agency created an extremely clever reverse psychology crusade. Agency staff assumed the role of a fake political party, Safeguarding American Families, which saturated the city with yard signs that read “Vote to close Troy Library on August 2nd-Book Burning Party on August 5th”, as well as launching a book burning party Facebook page.
Outraged by the prospect of a book burning celebration, residents pushed back against the effort. The dialogue about the merits of community libraries spread like wildfire across local, national, even international news. The campaign had successfully switched the conversation from anti-tax to pro-library. On August 2, the city of Troy had a 342 percent voter turnout and the institution was saved by a landslide vote.
Reverse psychology campaigns like this are slowly catching on in an overwhelmingly pro-product market. In a world where you are pushed to “eat this,” “go here” or “buy that,” it is increasingly appealing to actively deviate from the norm in order to be original, rebellious. When a marketer begs consumers to not do something, you can bet you’re going to do exactly the opposite.
Another highly successful example is Patagonia’s Cyber Monday movement, which implemented reverse psychology to nurture brand affinity. Launched on the biggest online shopping day of the year the “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign was seen by many as a form of brand suicide but instead the initiative instilled a much more important sentiment in the minds of consumers. Patagonia asked their customers to reflect on their consumption impact, “Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time – and leave a world inhabitable for our kids – we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.” Through this action, the company effectively positioned themselves as a business whose primary focus is the environment rather than generating capital. When choosing between Patagonia and their competitors, consumers are more likely to reflect on Patagonia’s environmentally consciences brand philosophy when purchasing a new winter fleece versus other fleece manufacturers.
Audiences are overwhelmingly uninspired by traditional techniques. Anti-marketing is a fresh approach that piques interest and generates surprise in a simple and authentic way. Patagonia’s “Don’t buy this jacket” and Leo Burnett’s campaign for the Troy Library are just a few of the many successful examples of the use of reverse psychology to promote a product or idea through consumer discovery. While it may seem daunting for brands to utilize this seemingly outlandish marketing technique, both examples prove it pays to be real, even if you raise a few eyebrows in the process.