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The March for Our Lives protest on Saturday drew hundreds of thousands of people around the world. They came out wielding homemade signs with slogans like “Enough Is Enough” and “Protect kids, not guns.” Some poster boards showed pictures and names of children killed in school shootings. Many teenagers and kids carried signs that said, in more or less the same words, “Am I next?” In its simplicity, it’s a gut-punch of a question.
People of all ages attended the rallies, but the most forceful presence belonged to the young. March for Our Lives was organized by survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and they and other students gave impassioned speeches at the main protest in Washington, DC. The last few days have seen a flood of tweets and Instagram posts from adults thanking teens for their activism and leadership.
But despite the topic — gun violence — and the high emotions surrounding it, one thing that wasn’t common at the March for Our Lives was graphic imagery. While PETA and certain anti-abortion groups often use upsetting visuals to communicate the consequences of what they protest, there was little of that on Saturday.
“They really are going for, ‘Look at us. We are your future, we are the people you should be saving,’ and they’re still naming and shaming politicians, but they’re not going for the graphic,” says Stephen Duncombe, a media professor at NYU who studies activism, of the students advocating gun control. “We are subjected to so many graphic images. If you turn on the TV, you see people get shot all the time. Video games, TV, movies, the nightly news. There’s compassion fatigue. I think these students intuitively understand that their strongest point is themselves.”
It’s not the first time that schoolchildren have been pivotal figures in political activism. In the Children’s Crusade of 1963, hundreds of black children in Birmingham, Alabama, skipped school to demonstrate for civil rights legislation. The police met the neatly dressed kids with water canons and police dogs, a response that helped make it the key moment it was.
When it comes to protest visuals like signs, staged demonstrations, and clothing, the best tactic depends on the group’s aim and the content of its message. Fear is “really easy” to capitalize on, says Duncombe, who also advises activist organizations. That’s why an environmental group might publicize dystopian images of deforestation, or a pro-life organization might show up at a progressive event with supersize pictures of bloody fetuses.
“When you’re trying to convince people of your message, the fastest way is not to make reasoned arguments, but to sway them emotionally,” says Duncombe.
Of the many protests that Ashley Byrne has led as a PETA campaign specialist, one that never fails to get a strong reaction is a demonstration in which a group hits the street covered in fake blood, wrapped in cellophane, and labeled like cuts of supermarket meat. The point, obviously, is to convince people to stop eating meat by showing how similar human and animal flesh looks. Byrne says that it’s an effective stunt not because it’s drawing attention to a little-known issue, but because it jolts people into looking at meat in a new light.
Sometimes gross-out tactics aren’t the best choice, though. In the midst of the uproar over the illegal hunting of a 13-year-old lion named Cecil in 2015, PETA didn’t need to spread upsetting images to talk about animal rights; the story was all over the news, and if people’s hearts were going to be wrenched, they already were. Instead, Byrne says, PETA activists used simpler, text-focused posters.
While upsetting images can be effective in the short term, frightening imagery has diminishing returns over time, says Duncombe. If a group wants to change the world for the better — and doesn’t want to create a society based on fear — it may do well to have a more positive look and message. Last year’s Women’s March was a textbook case. While there were plenty of posters bashing President Donald Trump, the overwhelming mood was one celebrating women, visible on written signs (“Trust women”), pictures (artist Shepard Fairey’s drawing of a woman in an American flag hijab), and attendees’ outfits (all those hot pink pussyhats). People channeled their anger into appealing, hopeful aesthetics.
Like the Women’s March, the March for Our Lives was a mainstream event with popular clout (Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, and Lin-Manuel Miranda performed at the rally in DC). The march drew the support of professional graphic designers, who created posters that anybody could download for free. (One, riffing on the perfectly organized flat-lay photography common among lifestyle blogs, shows school items — plus a bulletproof vest — under the words “2018 School Supplies.”) And the rally’s ever-present logo gave it a certain degree of corporate polish.
“It’s almost branded,” says Laura Portwood-Stacer, a feminist scholar of clothing and protest. “That can be good to show that there’s a unified message: They have policy directives and demands.”
But it also had the earnestness of thousands of hand-painted signs, many of them made by people who can’t even vote yet. If fear is a short-term motivator and positivity is a long-term solution, the March for Our Lives hit both notes perfectly. What’s more powerful than the sight of a kid carrying a poster that nearly dwarfs her, asking the world to let her live?